Updated: August 5, 2018 9:46:36 am
The Core: Its most recognisable avatar is the Iron Man suit, which has moved out of the Phantom Universe realm and is being developed by scientists around the world – the US, China, Canada, South Korea, Britain, Japan, Russia and Australia – for their militaries where the cutting-edge research is on wearable robotics. It was noticed that soldiers who are often expected to lug huge weights on their backs suffered more casualties negotiating tricky terrains rather than from gunshots.
“That’s how the exoskeleton industry picked up,” says Victoria University’s Dr Kurt Mudie. However this technology soon found utility beyond assault teams and in the civilian space: Providing legged mobility to individuals with paraplegia, as therapeutic intervention for those learning to walk and balance after accidents, as well as heavy duty labour involved in lifting and even firefighting. In sport, exoskeletons hold the potential of fast-tracking rehabs, helping avert aggravation of injuries, and preventing them altogether. Athletes coming out of surgery can start walking without fear of injury. Not for nothing are they called standing wheelchairs for athletes on the mend.
The use: “Exoskeletons are wearable devices designed to facilitate fundamental human actions, such as sit-to-stand and walking to transport the body through the environment,” says Professor Rezaul Begg who has shepherded the program at Victoria University. “They can assist to reduce stress on the musculoskeletal system to minimise injuries and fatigue, and augment operational performance,suitable for a wide range of sport and rehabilitation applications,” he adds. Military and industry-focused exoskeletons are used to assist heavy load carrying.
The Look: Pared down to the basics, they are braces for joints — or simply an upright wheelchair. An exoskeleton is an electro-mechanical system that is highly coupled to the human body, mimics the joint’s or limb’s motion, and is designed to improve user performance and reduce injury risk. Exoskeleton operation needs to be constantly compliant and flexible with human motion intentions.
The Tech: A soft, lightweight exoskeleton takes on some of that weight, reducing the burden on a body. It uses a system of powered cables to provide mechanical assistance, adding carefully timed pulling forces to natural movements so that the user’s own muscles expend less energy. Powered or active exoskeletons have been applied for rehabilitation and assistance in a range of clinical populations by providing assistance (torque) to the lower limb joint movement and human sensory- motor control performance.
“In our Biomechanics Laboratory at Victoria University, we are developing passive (unpowered) ankle exoskeletons to help people with balance problems and older people to reduce or eliminate falls,” says Professor Begg. “This type of exoskeleton will also be particularly suitable for sportspeople who are unable to control their foot motion while suffering from lower limb muscle owing to weakness or damage.”
ACTN3 as a speed gene
The Idea: Victoria University has been at the forefront of research on the ACTN3 genotype, which is linked to advantage in power and sprint activities. Its Institute of Health and Sport researches potential athletes for their genetic propensity towards speed or endurance for certain events or sports. “Athletes are both born and made,” says researcher Dr Nir Eynon. “Around 50 percent is attributed to environment, and 50 percent is genetic. You can train as much as you like, but if you don’t have the suitable genetic make-up, you’ll probably get far, but not be a world champion.”
The Method: Muscle biopsies are performed on the vastus lateralis muscle in the quadriceps of the participants’ dominant running leg. “Skeletal muscle biopsy is being administrated in exercise science to better understand the cellular and molecular responses within the human body,” Dr Eynon says. It looks directly at how the mitochondria (which is the power-house of the cell) functions using muscle fibres. It can also determine fibre type and help look at genetic determinants of exercise. “Here, researchers are assessing specific genetic and epigenetic markers that are associated with better and worse training responses in humans.”
The Science: Dr Eyon’s colleague Professor David Bishop spearheads a team of researchers determining whether athletes are born or made with respect to the alpha-actinin-3 gene, commonly referred to as the speed or sprint gene. There are two variants of the gene, an X and an R, and you inherit one from each parent. If you have two copies of the R gene, it’s likely that you’re good at explosive sports like sprinting, and if you’re not R-R you probably won’t be an Olympic sprinter, although there are other genes that may compensate.
The Lessons: The Victoria University research suggests an individual is inherently predisposed toward specialist performance in one area (endurance or sprint and power) and this can help sportspeople pick their events or sports. ACTN3 is the first structural skeletal-muscle gene for which such an association has been demonstrated. Darren Clark, head athletics coach at the Maribyrnong Sports Academy school (with whom VU has a tie-up and which contributes routinely to Olympic squads), says the academy is reluctant to encourage athletes who aren’t predisposed as elite sprinters to take up the 100m.
“A lot of performance is down to genetics. There’s no point trying to run after the sprints. We are very clear about what events we want to focus on. And if someone does well in sprints at the junior level, we’ll steer them towards hurdles or long jump, where there’s a realistic chance of a medal,” Clark says.
The Core: The Altitude Hotel at Victoria University’s campus in Melbourne simulates high-altitude living conditions in a sea-level environment. This method of training has been used by endurance athletes who rely on increase in red blood cell (RBC) levels and cardiorespiratory fitness (maximum rate of oxygen consumption), as the body acclimatises to relative lack of oxygen. Altitude training helps increase strength, speed, endurance and recovery.
Mimicking these conditions without actually trekking up to Arizona’s Flagstaff or Granada in Spain (which were traditionally the preferred terrains, like Ooty in India) has been the trend the last many years, but the University’s Institute of Health and Sport has brought home the idea to its Ground Zero campus. Fifty years after athletes woke up to the effects of altitude in sport at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, these specialised rooms (and tents and masks) are one of the few legit methods – while training – of getting the RBC count up.
The Use: While increasing RBCs by getting the body to get used to sparser oxygen is the intended effect, the Institute is going one step further to look at the effects of sleep, which the University researchers call the “most important recovery tool in sport”.
“Sleep studies is the hot topic in sport,” says Professor Michael McKenna, the Institute’s executive director. “We can literally manipulate sleep patterns to study their effects on sporting performance.”
The results can range between a few percent rise in RBCs to some even seeing a drop. But the University is involved in some deep research while athletes snooze inside that Altitude Hotel as sleep-for-recovery is maxed out for its utility not just as rest.
The Look: It’s called Room 320, but is designed like a bunk-bed hotel. The hotel has space for up to 16 participants under observation, to live for an extended time. The apartment is kitted out with a kitchen and communal area, bathroom, TV/DVD/internet, lockable cupboards and air conditioning. The slow hum of regulated conditions soon becomes the ambient sound as athletes check in and start spending extended periods in the facility, eventually living up to 18 hours per day there while training.
The Tech: The Altitude Hotel simulates low oxygen environments by pumping nitrogen into the apartment, which brings down oxygen levels. The conditions can ape altitude of up to 3,500 metres or beyond. The experience typically lowers the oxygen levels from the normal 20.9 percent to 15.5 percent.
The lab-research environment with its sensors and highly regulated conditions is investigating impacts of reduced oxygen on a range of physiological indicators. While in sport it puts performance of endurance athletes and team sportspeople under the microscope (starting with triathletes), the cosy hotel is also being used to study impacts on chronic lung diseases.
Athlete-Tracking Wearable Technology
The Core: High quality GPS derived movement data coupled with over 500 sensor metrics — speed, distance, heart rates, player load, intensity, acceleration, change of direction – is providing detailed insights into athletes’ potential for performance. Strapped to the body and monitored by a satellite – no less – this cloud-based analytics platform can throw up reams of data that can aid coaches to determine everything from selection and fitness to substitutions.
The Use: 1,520 teams across 35 sports in the world use this technology. The majority of the EPL (such as Liverpool, Tottenham, Leicester and Chelsea) does. In India, the hockey team has been using this tech provided by Australian provider Catapult who cater mostly to the AFL – the marathon field sport that has elements of rugby and Gaelic Football. Two-thirds of NFL, NBA, and most of Australia is onto it, while Andy Murray is one of the few tennis players who has admitted to using this tech. Selecao, the Brazilian national football squad, even has it at junior levels. Besides the biggies, skiing and ice hockey teams are known to make use of this GPS tech. The technology is also availed by teams in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Japan and China.
The Look: When you see a team donning sports bra-like black gear in training, you know it holds the 9cm device which is on the GPS radar with the athlete’s every movement being measured through heat maps. The Australian specialists worked on the country’s Olympic teams between 1999 and 2006 to fine tune the device. In the future, this tech is set to get less intrusive because athletes want the smallest possible gadget. Baseball pitchers, who don’t do much running, often claim superstition stops them from wearing the device.
The Tech: “The treadmills don’t give the same numbers as on the field,” says a Catapult representative, highlighting why indicators of athletic capability need to be judged in high intensity training at par with match-speeds.
A microprocessor chip crunches the data with an antenna receiving signals from GPS and satellites for a battery lasting six hours.
The 3.8-inch long device is fitted in with gyroscopes (to measure the orientation of the athlete’s body position), accelerometers (measuring impact of force) and magnetometers (measuring distance like a digital compass). This is placed along the top spine, and it can calculate everything from intensity of movements, the yoyo test, the beep test, and irregularities in running patterns. More pertinently, a coach of a team from Florence attested to reducing injuries among athletes by 88 percent, and using the analytics device to plan schedules of intensity.
In an AFL game, the device can map out real-time data, it can gauge players’ speeds dropping and could even detect a heart-attack in training. The two challenges remain predicting concussions and spikes in activity that could point to doping.
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