Big athletes care about big data

Together with the Sports Innovation Lab and OneTeam Collective, I was invited to sit on a couple of panels at the Harvard Innovation Labs last month, discussing the impact sports technology has on athletes.

We’re in the midst of a revolution in how athletes train, perform, and heal. Big data giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft and IBM are using wearable tech to gather information for athletes, coaches, trainers, and in some cases, fans. Mobile technology advances, AI, VR, AR, sensors, GPS, and more have allowed humans to stretch the limits of their athletic capabilities.

During my first panel I sat next to co-panelist Ahmad Nassar, president of NFL Players Inc., the commercial arm of the NFL Players Association. On big data and the NFL, he said “it can have a profound effect on extending the careers of our members, (and) that’s one of the many, many reasons we’re interested in this technology.” Yes. A profound effect on not only extending careers, but upstarting many more. While the NFLPA, presumably the NBA, MLB and NHL (among others) vet the commercial licensing opportunities, many athletes are taking advantage of the direct to consumer sales — with myself, of course, being one of them.

In my previous post I discussed using market-specific data to identify optimal geographies for the Rabil Tour 2017. This time, I’ll do my best to recommend specific tracking devices that help me on my way to becoming a more functional athlete.

Let’s start with the most important datapoint of my day: sleep.

For most of my athletic career I was told getting 7-9 hours is sufficient for athletic performance. Every day, I shoot for 8. After spending time researching certain sleep metrics I stumbled upon a device called WHOOP. The company claims to be the first product to measure physiological markers that indicate your personal readiness to perform each day — then give next day recommendations. After spending several weeks with it, I learned more about deep vs. light sleep, REM cycles, and disturbances, matched with my day’s activities, mood, nutrition, and time onscreen. Full disclosure: I’m not an endorsed athlete, but found the product to be quite useful and customizable (as advertised).

On my second panel I discussed the second most important datapoint of my day: nutrition.

Standards required for a high performance athlete – one that vigorously trains each day – may be different than your standard athletic, fit human. I often like to reference Mike Phelps as one being known to burn upwards of 10,000 calories per day during Olympic training. Yikes. Eat whatever you can get your hands on, I suppose. Regarding nutrition trackers, however, I’ve yet to come across a wearable that doesn’t require me to input every inessential item on a nutrition label after each snack or whole meal. It can become enervating and time-consuming. That said, I do it any way, and for my nutritional logging I’ve used a Fitbit. I think their UI/UX and implicit learning is one of the best I’ve come across. Full disclosure: I’m not an endorsed athlete.

Onto the datapoint that gets the most attention: training.

In my opinion, monitoring an athlete’s training by tracking their performance output, identifying imbalances that might lead to injury, matched with hydration levels and body temperature are all critical, big data points. As such, I’ve unpacked a couple key elements:

(1) Getting accurate and consistent reads as a professional athlete can be difficult. Let’s face it, most commercial devices are built for long distance runners or walkers. Athletes sweat (…a lot), devices slip, and sometimes break (especially during a contact sport).

(2) The best devices for high performance athletes are expensive.

A wearable I’ve started using with my strength & conditioning coach, Jay Dyer, is called the Vert. What attracts me to technology like this goes far beyond heart rate and joules (a measurement combining force, pressure, energy and power). I like playing the long game with big data. Using fitness trackers for one to three workouts of your choosing likely won’t lead you towards any measurable recommendations. Rather, taking an entire season’s worth of data, reviewing your performance timetable and flagging any inefficiencies (or sometimes overusages) that might tell a broader story is where I’m putting my money.

Another terrific performance data device? Catapult systems. I’d recommend trying either – and no, neither group is an endorser of mine.

The NFL Players Association, Harvard University and a new consulting company co-founded by local women’s hockey legend Angela Ruggiero, are teaming up to develop invest and tell better stories on how tracking devices can improve player performance and prevent injuries. I’m very happy and intrigued to be a part of the advisory board for Angela’s company, the Sports Innovations Lab.

Also, if you stuck around for entirety of this article, suffice to say I’m fairly bullish in the wearable space.


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