The Quantified Olympian: Wearables for Elite Athletes

Baseball pitchers, cyclists, and other competitors seek an edge with new gadgets

4 min read
Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

human os icon

Biometric gadgets are transforming the way the world’s elite athletes are trained. These wearable sensors provide on-the-go physiological measurements, which previously required bulky and costly lab equipment. Just as weight-training regimens became popular 40 years ago to build more resilient athletes, wearables are now helping players both improve performance and ward off injury.

“I definitely see them as becoming part of everyday training,” says Marko Yrjovuori, a biomechanics specialist who trains the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Here are some state-of-the-art systems that are changing the game for elite athletes, including a few within reach of dedicated amateurs.

  • img Illustration: Bryan Christie Design


    What it is: This electronic wristband measures sleep quality and quantity, which can help predict a player’s reaction time for the next day. Coaches can use an associated online tool to monitor the sleep patterns and fatigue of professional athletes.

    How it works: The band’s accelerometer senses tiny movements of the wearer’s wrist, which reveal whether the wearer is asleep or awake. To predict fatigue, the results are fed through the SAFTE (Sleep, Activity, Fatigue, Task, and Effectiveness) model, which was developed by the U.S. Army. An “effectiveness score” rates the quality of the wearer’s slumber.

    Who’s using it: Vancouver Canucks, Seattle Sounders, and Dallas Mavericks

    Price: US $22,800 per year for 20 Readibands, including analytics software (individual wristbands are not sold)

  • img 06Spotsgraphicbaseball Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

    Motus Sleeve

    What it is: A compression sleeve with sensors tracks a baseball player’s throwing motions. Pitchers who use the sleeves to correct their technique may be able to prevent ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries, which have resulted in an epidemic of reconstructive procedures known as Tommy John surgeries. Previously, quantifying ballplayers’ throwing motions required motion-capture imaging.

    How it works: The sleeve tracks arm movements with accelerometers and gyroscopes and sends data via Bluetooth to a smartphone. Based on an estimate of the player’s arm motions and basic biomechanical principles, the Motus app calculates elbow torque—the stress a pitcher puts on his UCL. It also tracks metrics such as arm speed, maximum shoulder rotation, and elbow height at ball release.

    Who’s using it: Pitchers with more than two dozen professional baseball teams during spring training this year

    Price: US $150

  • img 06OLSportsgraphicRunner Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

    Myontec Mbody Pro

    What it is: Compression shorts with sensors measure muscle imbalances in the legs. The garment can determine, for example, whether athletes are favoring one leg or are using their quadriceps disproportionately compared with their hamstrings. The feedback can help athletes improve their technique and possibly forestall cramps or injuries.

    How it works: The shorts combine electromyography (EMG) measurements of muscle activity with accelerometer and heart-rate data. The high-end version, Mbody Pro, provides a more detailed analysis of EMG data than the consumer versions, Mbody Bike&Run and Mbody AllSports.

    Who’s using it: Los Angeles Lakers, Pittsburgh Penguins, professional boxers, Olympic snowboarders and ice skaters, and more than 20 sports institutes and training centers around the world

    Price: €4,000–€6,800 (€770 for the consumer-version starter kit)

  • BSX Insight

    What it is: A compression sleeve worn on the calf measures lactate threshold—the level of exercise intensity above which lactic acid builds up in the bloodstream, causing discomfort and forcing the athlete to slow down. Normally, monitoring lactate threshold requires multiple finger-prick blood samples, which must be sent to a lab. This noninvasive sensor, however, can be worn while working out.

    How it works: The device uses near-infrared spectroscopy to estimate lactic-acid concentration. Lights of different wavelengths shine through arteries in the calf, and sensors measure the reflections to reveal changes in blood oxygenation and other parameters.

    Who’s using it: Many professional cyclists, runners, and triathletes, as well as a British soccer team and an NBA team

    Price: US $420 (multisport version)

  • OptimEye S5

    What it is: This device’s sensors precisely record a player’s movement on the field or court. The device, which sits over the upper back inside a compression garment, monitors acceleration, deceleration, change of direction, jump height, and distance traveled, among other metrics. Coaches use the data to keep tabs on how hard players are working and to prevent injuries resulting from overtraining.

    How it works: Accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes, and a GPS receiver record as many as 100 data points per second. Algorithms determine what the athlete is doing based on the software’s sport- and position-specific analytics. The data is accessible in real time on the sidelines through a wireless link.

    Who’s using it: Nearly half of the NFL, a third of the NBA, more than 100 NCAA teams, half the English Premier League, and dozens of other professional hockey, soccer, rugby, and rowing teams around the world

    Price: About US $175 per athlete per month, depending on the number of devices purchased

This article originally appeared in print as “The Quantified Olympian.”

About the Author

Emily Waltz is a freelance journalist based in Nashville. She was well motivated to survey some electronic aids that athletes are using to guard against injury and boost performance. “I’ve played tennis since I was 5, and by the time I was a senior on my high school team, the spine-bending motion of my serve had done a number on my lower back,” says Waltz. “Keeping an eye on a kid’s mechanics using wearable sensors might help coaches and parents prevent such injuries.”

The Conversation (0)

How Robots Helped Out After the Surfside Condo Collapse

Responders flew drones night and day to survey the collapse and search for survivors

10 min read

Image of the collapse from a drone on July 2, 2021.

Robin R. Murphy

Editor's Note: Along with Robin Murphy, the authors of this article include David Merrick, Justin Adams, Jarrett Broder, Austin Bush, Laura Hart, and Rayne Hawkins. This team is with the Florida State University's Disaster Incident Response Team, which was in Surfside for 24 days at the request of Florida US&R Task 1 (Miami Dade Fire Rescue Department).

On June 24, 2021, at 1:25AM portions of the 12 story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida collapsed, killing 98 people and injuring 11, making it the third largest fatal collapse in US history. The life-saving and mitigation Response Phase, the phase where responders from local, state, and federal agencies searched for survivors, spanned June 24 to July 7, 2021. This article summarizes what is known about the use of robots at Champlain Towers South, and offers insights into challenges for unmanned systems.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

This Camera Can "See" the Bigger Picture

Researchers' new camera spots fast-moving objects over a wide angle of view

3 min read

Real scenes (top) are compared with a semi-dense depth map obtained by EOMVS (middle), in which blue represents nearby objects and red represents distant objects. These data are contrasted with LiDAR measurements (bottom).

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

Imagine being able to see fast-moving objects under poor lighting conditions – all with a wider angle of view. Us humans will have to make do with the vision system we've evolved, but computer vision is always reaching new limits. In a recent advancement, a research team in South Korea has combined two different types of cameras in order to better track fast-moving objects and create 3-D maps of challenging environments.

The first type of camera used in this new design is an event-based camera, which excels at capturing fast-moving objects. The second is an omni-directional (or fisheye) camera, which captures very wide angles.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Stevens Engineers Design Fetal Heart Monitor That Could Detect Early Signs of Pregnancy Complications

Gyroscopes and accelerometers inside fingernail-sized devices accurately monitor fetal heart rate and movements without electrode attachments, even when worn over clothing

3 min read
Stevens Institute of Technology

A baby's heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks into pregnancy. From around 12 weeks until birth, doctors will listen to the fetus' heartbeat at every prenatal appointment to closely monitor the baby's health. But what if fetal heart activity changes in between these appointments, while the doctor isn't there to listen? Engineers at Stevens Institute of Technology have designed a wearable device that continuously monitors fetal activity—even from home—in order to detect early signs of complications and allow for prompt, potentially life-saving interventions.

“If we can monitor fetal heart rate continuously, when the mother is sleeping and so forth, there may be signs that show complications," said Negar Tavassolian, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering who is leading this research at the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. “We can recognize these signs ahead of time and warn the mother to go see the doctor, whereas if she just relies on the doctor's visits alone, then a lot of things can go wrong in between."

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Trending Stories

The most-read stories on IEEE Spectrum right now