Athletes have never been more aware of what their bodies need in order to reach peak performance. Fuel Illustrated is a collaboration between Gatorade and the SI Overtime branded content studio exploring how the best athletes in the world manage their daily clock—training, diet, competition and recovery—as they strive for excellence in their chosen sports.
Halfway through the 2015 college football season, University of Georgia’s director of sports medicine, Ron Courson, noticed something out of the ordinary. Injuries at receiver had forced several of the Bulldogs’ reserve wideouts into starting duty, and one of them had seen his workload increase considerably. “He had run 2,000 yards more than he normally ran,” says Courson. “I went to the coaches and said, ‘We’ve got to pay attention here.’”
Georgia’s coaches knew how to tweak the players’ practice and workout schedule thanks to modern wearable technology. Courson was overseeing a cutting-edge test program in which 44 Georgia Bulldog players were outfitted with GPS devices during every practice and game last season—from preseason camp through Georgia’s win over Penn State in this year’s TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2. The gadgets are about the size of a pager, and are tucked into pockets sewn into the back of the players’ jerseys. At the end of each day, the devices are plugged into docking stations and the data is downloaded onto a computer. The results are printed in color-coded charts, and coaches can see not only how far a player has run, but also how fast. That serves as an indicator of how hard he might be pushing himself—or how worn down he might be getting. “You’ve got 125 players at practice, and it’s hard to keep track of everybody,” says Courson. “The data was very helpful.”
In recent years, similar programs have been implemented in college sports programs across the country—as well as by teams in the NFL, NBA and NHL, although the pro leagues don’t allow the devices in competition. In the interest of maximizing performance and preventing injury, teams are looking for new and better ways to monitor athletes in training. Worldwide revenues for sports, fitness and activity monitors are expected to grow from $1.9 billion in 2013 to $2.8 billion in 2019, according to IHS Technology, a technology industry analysis firm.
Along with GPS tracking, some teams also use a device that tracks vital signs; a monitor is worn over a player’s chest, held in place by a strap or as part of a compression vest, which provides information on players’ heart rates, respiration rates and core body temperatures. “It was really helpful for players coming back from injury,” says Courson. “We could see how they were responding to exercise.”
There are several manufacturers of such sophisticated systems, including Zephyr Technologies, in Annapolis, Md., and Catapult Sports, in Victoria, Australia. “We’ve always done physiological monitoring,” says Mark Santini, the marketing and product manager at Zephyr, which started up about 10 years ago. “We’ve added the GPS component in the last few years.”
Now, technology even exists to monitor an athlete’s level of hydration. In January 2016, Gatorade’s Sports Science Institute introduced a squeeze bottle with hydration tracking technology that can measure and record real-time fluid consumption. Data is transmitted from the bottle’s cap and shared via Bluetooth with iPads running the Gatorade Hydration App. The caps, which are currently being tested among select competitive athletes throughout the nation, make the FitBit seem as technologically advanced as a sundial. “It’s part of a system,” says James Carter, the Ph.D. at the helm of the GSSI, who adds that he also wants to develop a way to measure the water an athlete is losing: “We’re focused on developing a patch that can measure an athlete’s real-time sweat rate.”
The information gleaned from monitoring technology is having a real-world impact on competition. On March 13, 2015, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr benched forward Andre Iguodala, and guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, for a game in Denver. Not surprisingly, the 25–41 Nuggets defeated the eventual NBA champs 114–103. Some Golden State fans who had made the trip to see the Warriors in Denver took to Twitter to complain, but Kerr, whose team uses Catapult’s system, was unmoved. “We can tell when a guy is run down,” he told a reporter. “It’s not just the eye test. It’s scientific data.”