The science of winning.

12 February 2021

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing and motion capture cameras are among the next-generation technologies helping elite athletes break new ground (and world records).


The science of winning.

12 February 2021

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing and motion capture cameras are among the next-generation technologies helping elite athletes break new ground (and world records).

Artificial intelligence in sport

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and 3D printing are changing the game across different sporting codes. Image: iStock.

From Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan sneakers to Cathy Freeman’s iconic Swift Suit, elite athletes have a long history of looking to science and technology for new ways to gain a competitive advantage.

And with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and 3D printing changing the game across different sporting codes, future athletes are set to improve their performance by leaps and bounds.

Adapting to all conditions

Professional athletes have long engaged in altitude training to reap the reported cardiovascular benefits associated with exercise in conditions with lower levels of oxygen in the air. For Australian athletes, this generally required travelling overseas to facilities at least 2130 metres above sea level, but that was before simulated altitude training systems offered the opportunity to gain an edge without leaving home.

“Altitude training systems help athletes to train their bodies to work harder,” explains David Connell of Altitude Training Systems, a company that has worked with Collingwood Football Club, Melbourne Storm and the ORICA-GreenEDGE cycling team. “When they go back to competing at sea level, their red blood cells are more efficient and can provide more oxygen to their muscles, so they can run faster for longer.”

Running training in the snow an athlete downhill

Athletes no longer have to travel overseas to reap the cardiovascular benefits of training at high altitudes. Image: iStock.

David explains that the more recent emergence of environmental chambers means athletes can now go one step further by training in highly specific weather conditions.

From adjusting the humidity of the chamber to prepare for a triathlon in the tropics, to cooling and wind simulation for those competing in sub-zero temperatures, environmental chambers enable athletes to optimise their performance in different climatic conditions without training overseas.

For instance, the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise (UCRISE) has an environmental chamber that allows athletes to train in temperatures up to 50°C and relative humidity up to 90 per cent. Studies have shown that training consistently in hot temperatures can lead to improved myocardial efficiency and increased blood and plasma volume – advantages that can make all the difference on game day.

The end of the ACL injury?

Whether you’re a pro golfer or an Olympic gymnast, preventing and recovering from injuries is paramount to career success and longevity.

ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) injuries are among the most common knee injuries experienced by athletes, especially basketballers, alpine skiers, footballers and soccer players. Ever witnessed a sporting hero fall to the ground clutching their knee in agony? Most likely, they’ve injured their ACL. But emerging motion capture technology could make ACL injuries less common in the future.

Increasingly, computer simulations and mathematical modelling are being used to train athletes to move their bodies in more beneficial ways. Small adaptations to running, jumping, and pivoting styles can reduce injury risk and give athletes an edge over the competition.

In the United States, Augmented Neuromuscular Training (aNMT) technology is an emerging tool developed by digital health and performance technology company, IncludeHealth in conjunction with researchers from the University of Cincinnati.

Providing real-time bio-feedback, the technology monitors an athlete’s movement on camera, providing immediate data about whether the technique was ideal for optimal performance and injury prevention. Studies indicate this technology improves functional connectivity, thereby reducing exposure to injury risk.

As computer simulation technology becomes more commonplace, athletes are set to reap the benefits of increased access to accurate, real-time data that enables them to correct their movements on-the-go and move their bodies in more efficient, less risky ways.

Could this type of technology put an end to ACL injuries for good? Probably not, but it offers great promise for future generations of athletes keen to protect their joints, prolong their careers and outperform the competition.

Rise of the machines

From manufacturing to medicine, machine learning is transforming many industries, and the world of elite sports is no exception.

Traditionally, coaches would spend hours watching match footage to spot patterns of weakness in their competition. Now, the days of manually trawling through tapes appear numbered with game analysis set to be revolutionised by artificial intelligence.

Australian start-up has built an innovative platform that provides data-driven real-time video analysis to sports teams, with cricket one sport that stands to benefit greatly from the platform.

From tracking the line, length and speed of deliveries, to measuring reaction times for fielders, using AI to capture and harness data allows coaches and players to access deeper insights that may lead to a breakthrough wicket that cracks the game wide open.

Engineering wheels that win

Wheelchair sports have come a long way since athletes competed using heavy, cumbersome wheelchairs at the world’s first Paralympic Games held in Rome in 1960.

These days, engineers are taking cues from the world of high-performance vehicle engineering to enable wheelchair athletes to take their performance to the next level.

As a sport engineer working within the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) Applied Technology and Innovation Workshop, Andy Richardson’s background in motorsports engineering helps him to create custom equipment for Australian para-athletes such as wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott.

Dylan Alcott at the Australian Open in 2019

Wheelchair athletes such as Australian tennis ace Dylan Alcott are now benefiting from 3D printing techniques pioneered within the motorsports industry. Image: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images.

Crowned the world’s best quad tennis player by the International Tennis Federation in 2020, Dylan’s on-court dominance has seen him become the first quad tennis player to win an impressive 10 Grand Slam titles.

While many different factors contribute to the making of a champion, significant advances in wheelchair design have undoubtedly boosted Dylan’s winning ways.

“All para-athletes have unique physiological requirements. In the last five years, 3D printing technology has enabled big leaps forward in wheelchair design,” says Andy, who predicts more athletes will harness technology to adapt their equipment in the future.

He explains that 3D printing has resulted in significant advances, with custom seating crafted specifically to the athlete’s body shape allowing them to train for longer without fatiguing or getting pressure injuries, a common challenge for para-athletes.

“3D printers are ideal for making reasonably high-quality parts that have a low volume of production. Our workshop has nine 3D printers of various capabilities that allow us to make parts from different materials like metal and plastic,” explains Andy.

Just as race car drivers are perfectly fitted to their seats, wheelchair athletes are now benefiting from techniques pioneered within the motorsports industry. “The athletes sit in a vacuum-bagged foam rubber seat mould. The mould is then 3D-scanned. Computer-aided design is then used to manufacture a carbon-fibre seat to fit the athlete,” says Andy.

After many years working with high-performance vehicles, Andy’s career switch to working with Australia’s para-athletes has been satisfying. “In a relatively short amount of time, you can make an effective, tangible difference while working on these kinds of engineering projects. It’s really rewarding,” he says.

By Jo Stewart