Tech trains more powerful athletes

Northeastern University has invested in technology to reduce injuries

 Helped by a high-tech suite of laser arrays, breathing systems and speed analyzers, Clay Witt saved nine out of 10 hockey pucks shot at him during his hockey career.

From 2010 to 2015, Witt played Division I ice hockey at Northeastern University and trained with a coach who steadily increased the use of technology in training.

Another result: a 40 percent reduction in athletic injuries, according to Dan Boothby, director of strength and conditioning at Northeastern University in Boston.

Taking a break from playing professional hockey in the East Coast Hockey League, Witt was back on campus to demonstrate some of the technology he used while playing college hockey. He noted that even some professional hockey teams don’t have the advanced technology that Northeastern has.

[See a video report on Northeastern's high-tech training equipment here.]

“You don’t realize how lucky you are until you move to that next level and a lot of teams can’t afford it,” he said.

There are five main tools and technologies that Northeastern uses to train and evaluate its 500 athletes. The Tendo analyzer measures how fast an athlete lifts weights. That’s important because different velocities train different muscles.

“We’ve started to prescribe our loads based on velocity,” he said. “If he’s trying to build strength, strength-speed or true power, each of those has different velocity ranges.”

The Optojump is a $6,000 laser array that checks an athlete’s gait and jumping ability. In one test, the coaches make the athletes jump up and down on one foot. While jumping, the athletes try to hit the ground on the same spot as frequently as they can.

“So no different than a marksman,” said Boothby, sitting in Northeastern’s gym. “The grouping of that is what really matters, and if we see variance in any one of those areas then we know we’re having a breakdown in the neurological pattern and the coding and sequencing.”

Before tools like the Optojump, it was impossible for coaches to evaluate something like this.

Athletes are only as good as their ability to acquire oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Boothby uses the Pro2 to measure athletes’ lung volumes and to train them to be more efficient. Students blow into a plastic piece that connects via Bluetooth to a tablet. In real-time, athletes and coaches can watch a graph of inspiratory pressure. A breathing profile is one of the first things that Boothby logs when an athlete steps on campus

“We know that the breathing is the best way to regulate the autonomic nervous system,” he said.

Of all the technology used in the Northeastern gym, a Polar heart rate monitor might be the most familiar piece of equipment. The monitors strap around an athlete's chest and log heart rates over time. Northeastern has dozens of them and when a team is working out in the weight room, each athlete wears one. There are screens around the gym and all of the data can be viewed by coaches, trainers and athletes.

Boothby has been adding technology to the Northeastern athletics program since he arrived at the university seven years ago.

“The last 10 years has been an exciting and confusing time for strength coaches,” he said.

Boothby uses software from Athlogic to integrate data from the various machines. The software creates an “athletic transcript” that can be used to track athletes’ progress. They can also log into a social media-like dashboard to see their progress and how they compare to their teammates.

“It was easier to see how I got better,” Witt said. “We’re all competitive people so you want to get the top score on whatever it was so it created a little competition as well.”

Boothby said that the suite of technology frees up human resources. With one coach for every 75 athletes, the technology helps individualize workouts. Prior to technology implementation, training was more of a one-size-fits-all approach.

At a time when injury rates are on the rise due to year-round training, Boothby said technology has played a part in eliminating anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, injuries on campus. A season-ending ACL injury in a knee could cost $70,000 to fix and “countless hours” to rehabilitate according to Boothby.

Boothby said Northeastern invested about $30,000 in equipment over the past several years.

“We are looking at squeezing more athletic ability out of them,” Boothby said from his office overlooking the weight room. “If we can see the diagnostics...we now know where we can improve.”

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