Technology in Sport Part 4: Quantification (Assessment of Physiological State)

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It’s been a while since my last entry in this series on technology in sport but I figured I’d resume things with a blog on the use of technology to assess training load and physiological readiness. In theory this could be very important to a coach because it can be used as a tool to assess whether an athlete is overtrained and help to guide both training and competition strategies. There are a couple of tools that a coach can use to do this type of thing and while most of them are not practical or even readily available to the average coach, they’re still worthwhile noting as when it comes to technology…what’s accessible to few today, will likely be available to the masses tomorrow. I’ll take a top-down approach and go from least to most practical means of assessing physiological readiness.

  • Non-Invasive Metabolic Rate Testing: A new product that has not even been publicly released permits the measurement of metabolic rate, tissue and blood chemistry measurements (including pH and 02 readings). This tool uses infrared light placed on the skin to quickly take the measurements.
  • Blood Testing: While many in the sporting world might be leery of giving blood for personal or religious reasons; or fearful of some type of association with doping, the reality is that this may be one of the the most proven methods to monitor physiological state. Among other things, blood tests can give a good read of testosterone to cortisol ratios. These are among the top hormones for assessing the anabolic or catabolic state of an athlete. At HPC, we actually have a PhD physiologist who can run the assays necessary to check this and other endocrine panels but I’ve never had enough athletes that I was concerned about to warrant doing it (because you would ideally fill a tray). If you wanted to outsource the work, it can actually be done for surprisingly cheap, especially if you are sending in larger quantities of samples at a time.
  • Salivary and Urine Testing: These basically offer the same advantages as above however testing is much less invasive.
  • Omegawave: Despite many coaches (myself included) lusting after this device at one point or another, its results really still have yet to be proven. It is designed to record and analyze a battery of physiological data from the vital to the obscure and give an indication of an athlete’s functional readiness. The tests range from simple resting heart beat to the brain’s slow (Omega) waves. Theoretically, the comprehensive battery of tests should at provide some meaningful data to the coach without the invasive nature of the tests described above. It potentially offers a comprehensive look at an athlete’s cardiac regulatory systems, energy metabolism systems, central nervous system, gas exchange and cardiopulmonary system, detoxification system, and hormonal system without any invasive tests. Depending on the test selection, the battery can be done in around 20-30 minutes. The primary drawback….it’s insanely expensive (although there are some lower-end models now and the prices have dropped dramatically; I’m also guessing that some of the data may be redundant.
  • Heart Rate Monitors: The same heart rate monitors sold at your average sporting goods store can be used to monitor training state. This is because various measurements of the heart rate have been proven to be a reliable indicator of an overtrained condition. In particular, heart rate variability has been the most promising and reliable indicator. With a basic heart rate monitor you could do something as simple as monitor morning resting heart rates upon waking and log it over time while attempting to correlate the measurements with either perceived or actual physical readiness (as measured by competition or testing). Previous research indicates that you’re generally going to see elevated resting heart rates with overtraining syndromes. For a more extensive assessment you could examine heart rate variability and the recovery heart rate following exertion. These indicators would give a more in-depth look at the athlete’s cardiovascular system and an indirect assessment of the state of their central nervous system. This however couldn’t be done with just your average heart rate monitor. To measure heart rate variability you’d need a higher-end monitor. Some of the newer watches from Polar are capable of this.
  • Performance Analysis: Any of the methods for timing and measurement presented in the second and third installment of this series would be great applied means of assessing an athletes functional readiness. Sure they’re not necessarily direct physiological indicators but ultimately, what better way is there to test physiological state than to actually look at some performance outcomes?
  • Tap Test: There are programs on the internet that allow you to test rapidity of movement…typically by counting the number of finger taps against a button for a set duration of time. The theory is that this will give an indication of central nervous system state. I’ve never seen any research to indicate that it would or could but I figured it would be worth noting. I’ve used it before and noticed that it was impossible to discern the learning curve of the test from any physiological assessment…even when used over extended periods of time.
  • Reaction Time Test: This is more of a home-brew solution but one that I’ve always been intrigued by. Reaction time is largely a function of the nervous system, which in turn be used as an indirect indicator of many other physiological systems of the body. It would stand to reason that you might be able to get some meaningful correlational data with reaction time using a stopwatch (yes…the same stupid test you did when you were a kid trying to get the fastest double click on the chronograph).

One thing that I want to caution with all of these tests is that single session, one off testing will do you little to no good as a coach. Because every individual is unique, and therefore has unique markers and baselines for physiological state, it’s important to establish solid baseline measures before attempting to make any association with performance or training state. Also, because outside factors (life stresses, etc), adaptations to training, and in some cases even the testing itself, are likely to affect these tests, it’s important to continually update baseline measures if the data is going to be meaningful.
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Mike Young

Mike Young

Founder of ELITETRACK at Athletic Lab
Mike has a BS in Exercise Physiology from Ohio University, an MSS in Coaching Science from Ohio University & a PhD in Biomechanics from LSU. Additionally, he has been recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, a Level 3 coach by USA Track & Field, a Level 2 coach by USA Weightlifting.
Mike Young

@mikeyoung

@AthleticLab Owner. Fitness coach for @NorthCarolinaFC & @TheNCCourage. Former MLS Fitness Coach. Sport Scientist. Entrepreneur. Coach Educator.
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