Technology in Sport Part 2: Quantification (Timing)

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In the first installment of this blog series on technology in track, I laid out what I thought were the 4 main uses of technology in our sport and discussed the first of these (communication) in greater detail. The second major area that I mentioned as being an important area where technology can be used is quantification. Quantification deals with counting, measuring, or numerically assessing a performance or observation. Obviously, this second point is at the very core of what our sport is about. We measure jumps and throws and time races on the track. We even measure wind readings, track circumference, and dozens of other competition parameters. All in the hopes of making our sport fairly uniform so that performance comparisons can be made across time and regions (time and space sounded kinda corny!!).

In this installment of this series, I want to look at one of the aspects of quantification that is absolutely elemental to our sport – Timing. Of course in track, we have the two ‘industry standards’ of hand times with a stop watch and fully automatic times (FAT) using an electronic timer that is started by the sound of the starting gun. But what about other less well known means of timing exist that can be used by the ‘common man?’ There are several options out there that can be used to incorporate timing in to training, testing, and even competitive performances that can be very beneficial. In the remainder of this blog post I’ll discuss some of the options I’ve used over the last couple years.

  • Motion Analysis Software: Most of the latest consumer motion analysis software on the market now (like Dartfish, Sports Motion, Silicon Coach and the opensource Kinovea) have built in timing applications that allow users to time activities based on their video performance. I’ll discuss in greater detail the logistics of doing so in a later installment of this series but these programs can be useful for determining near-FAT results for relay splits, segmental splits of races, and even near-instantaneous runway velocities. I’ve even used it for testing fly 10s and 30m accelerations using pre-determined and well marked zones and a well-positioned camera. I’ve tested these results against other more proven methods of timing and the results are very acceptable. In fact, this is the method that my company in conjunction with the USATF sprint development group has used to do race splits for the elite athletes competing at the last 5 outdoor national championships.
  • Frame Counting: The other end of the spectrum to the motion analysis software route is going ‘old school’ and counting frames of video and extrapolating time based on the frame count. This is actually the same thing that a motion analysis program will do for you so there really isn’t any accuracy drop off compared to the above method as long as you don’t lose count or screw up the calculations. Most video shot on U.S. camcorders will be at 29.97 frames per second. This means a single frame is worth about 0.0333 seconds worth of time. If you record on a cell phone or camera intended for still pictures the frame rate is generally much less. If you are using a VCR, many of them actually have the option to display frame counts and you can quite easily figure out fairly accurate times based on the time code.
  • Commercial Timing Gates: There are a variety of timing gates on the market and each seem to have their own strengths and weaknesses. The best ones that provide research grade results cost over $1,000 for a single set. These are typically wireless and can be configured to be used with a touchpad, timing gates, beeper start, or timed start. The most popular of the options that fulfill these options seems to be Brower timing gates. I managed to pick up their system with an extra set of timing gates for less than half market price and I’ve found them quite valuable. Three of my 8 post-collegiate athletes have (or have access to) a set and we use them for lots of things ranging from testing to monitoring training state. Other than Brower, there are several other manufacturers on the market that do wireless timing systems with flexible starting mechanisms including models from Tag Huer, Alge, Microgate, KMS, and Speed Light. All of these are 2 gate systems with an emitter and receiver which enhances accuracy. There are several single gate systems on the market including one from Sparq but results on these are not as reliable. To be fair though they are a fraction of the cost of some of the gates mentioned above and they can certainly serve their purpose. There is one very specialized form of timing gate that I want to mention here and that’s the OptoJump timing system. This is essentially a string of low profile timing gates that are placed on the ground. Their low profile allows them to be used specifically for timing ground contact and flight times. When long stretches of them are used they can even be used to measure things like stride length and triple jump phase ratios. I had the chance to use this a couple years ago at the Olympic training center as well as at a couple of elite USATF funded meets but the device never seemed to meet expectations. It was very buggy at the time but it seemed to have a lot of promise.
  • Home-Brew Timing Gates: As an even lower cost option you could quite easily make a set of timing gates using equipment from your local radio shack. I built a set for the biomechanics lab at LSU and it cost under $80. The results were perfect. I used 2 sets of light emitter-receiver from a home alarm system and hooked them up to what was essentially a counter. When the beam was broken it essentially flipped the switch and changed the timer from start to stop (or vice versa if it was already on). The only problem was that it wasn’t wireless and the actual timer was probably 10x as heavy as a Brower timing gate. It worked great for an in-lab setting but wouldn’t be the best option if you had to cart it around on a regular basis. I had also started to look in to making a wireless setup that used a pocket PC as the timer with the switch being transmitted wirelessly via bluetooth or radio frequency. This was considerably more expensive at the time and was going to require that I code a timing application and user interface. But now that used pocket PCs can be had for relatively little and bluetooth technology is ubiquitous, this could probably be made for under $300 with a little know how and lots of patience. I’d imagine an iPhone or iPod Touch would actually be perfect for something like this if someone familiar with the coding structure could design a customized App.
  • Pizo-Electric and Force Platforms: These are pretty specific but they can be used to time flight and ground contact times. This makes them great as a quick means of testing vertical jump. They essentially time the flight time and calculate the vertical displacement based on the time in flight. They can also be used as a very rudimentary touch-based timing system for running and agility work. I’ve used these on several occasions for testing vertical jump and they were quite reliable and very comparable to more low-tech options.
  • Transponder Timing Systems: I actually can’t say I have any hands on experience with these and I’m not sure they would serve much purpose to the large majority of readers of this blog. I figured I’d include it though, as it is a relatively new form of technology that is increasingly being used in our sport (albeit primarily in longer road races). These setups, like the ones from ChampionChip use Radio frequency ID (RFID) technology developed by Texas Instruments to deliver fast and accurate timing results. This can be useful in races like the NYC Marathon where a competitor at the end of the masses of a starting line may not actually pass the starting line (!!!!) until 20-30 minutes after the gun went off. If an athlete is wearing an RFID chip they’re REAL time (the one from starting line to finish line) can be determined.

So there are some of the options I’ve either personally used or explored. I’m sure there are many more so feel free to add suggestions and comments. I’ve used most of the options and equipment packages I’ve detailed above so if you have any questions please feel free to ask.
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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

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Mike Young
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