The tech-powered training that's forging superathletes
By Mark McClusky, WIRED
In an anonymous stretch of office buildings off Highway 101 in Menlo Park, California, just miles from tech giants like Facebook and Google, sits a laboratory dedicated to the perfection of athletic training. On this Bay Area day, the large rolling door of the warehouse-like space is thrown open to let in the sunshine, filling the room with light as a dozen professional baseball players embark on their ninety-minute workout.
They begin by rolling out their muscles to loosen them and increase blood flow before starting the actual work. Rather than using the more typical foam rollers, each player employs a four-foot length of PVC pipe to help free up the tightness in his quads and hamstrings. No traditional static stretching here, no toe-touches. Research shows that doing those activities before exercise can actually decrease an athlete’s strength and explosiveness. After the rolling, the players start to move around the gym, gradually ramping up their activity level (this prevents injury, and is a better method for all of us, not just professional athletes, to warm up).
After 15 minutes, they move on to the next part of their warm-up, although to an observer, it sure looks like they’re going all out. The position players take turns working on their sprint technique on an indoor forty-meter track. They take the wide-leg crouch of a runner leading off of first base, and on a coach’s prompt, they pivot and sprint toward an imaginary second. As they do, the coach gives them cues on their form, urging them to maintain the correct body lean as they run, so that all of the force they create propels them forward as quickly as possible. Each repetition is timed by an electronic system; the coach enters the time into software on his iPad, where it goes into the player’s data file, which tracks everything he does at the gym. A plasma screen TV shows a delayed video feed of the start zone, which players can stop and look at after their sprint to get visual feedback on their performance.
Look for new entries in the Super Bowl 100 series, presented by Gatorade and Microsoft Surface, at SI.com/SB100 and Wired.com/SB100
Chapter 1, Oct. 7 TRAINING
Chapter 2, Oct. 28 EQUIPMENT
Chapter 3, Nov. 18 STADIUMS
Chapter 4, Dec. 9 CONCUSSIONS
Chapter 5, Dec. 16 MEDIA
Chapter 6, Dec. 30 VR
Chapter 7, Jan. 6 NFL IN SOCIETY
Chapter 8, Jan. 13 TRACKING
Chapter 9, Jan. 20 STRATEGY
Chapter 10, Jan. 27 SB 100
Then the workout proper starts, a blur of activity and action enhanced by the blasting music on the sound system. The players use specific lifts and drills to target their individual needs for improvement. They do onelegged squats to increase their leg strength and core stability, dead lifts to boost their overall strength. Box jumps aim to increase their explosive power, and slide boards are used to work on lateral agility. And because they play baseball, a sport that relies on rotational strength for both pitchers and hitters, they do a special exercise to boost that skill. The player takes a medicine ball, steps onto his back foot and rotates to wind up, then blasts forward and through, heaving the ball sideways against a wall. A radar readout shows them how hard they’ve thrown it.
Then, somehow, the players manage to amp up the energy even further. The music, a heavy metal song, is cranked as the coaches gather the players into two groups. Everything so far has been mapped and planned to the second; now it’s time for a little raw competition. One group heads to the weight racks, where they see who can do the most standing rows in two minutes. The others start doing push-ups with a forty-five-pound weight on their backs, competing head-to-head to see who can complete more. Professional athletes being what they are, there’s a little trash talk from some, and a renewed level of focus and concentration from others. The winners try to celebrate, although one is so shattered from his effort that he collapses on a bench and holds his head in his hands, chest heaving, as he tries to catch his breath.
And just like that, they’re done. The athletes towel off their faces and head to a kitchen, where they make recovery drinks and slurp them down. The four coaches circulate through the group, offering a look at the data from each athlete’s workout and a word of encouragement or correction, depending on what they think the player needs.
This lab is called Sparta Performance Science, and it’s the brainchild of a doctor named Phil Wagner. You’ve probably never heard of him. But you’ve probably heard of some of his clients. Most notably, he turned Jeremy Lin, a midlevel professional basketball prospect who was having trouble sticking with an NBA team, into a phenom who landed a $25 million contract. Jason Castro, the Houston Astros’ all-star catcher? International soccer star Teresa Noyola? The top overall pick in baseball’s 2013 draft, pitcher Mark Appel? They’ve all worked out with Sparta.
Wagner’s system is built on testing functional movements of athletes, then trying to optimize them based on individual strengths and weaknesses and how they match up to the sport the athlete plays. Instead of working off of a generalized idea of what an athlete needs to be successful, the lab has identified the specific abilities a player requires to excel in a given sport. A baseball player or golfer needs good rotational ability; a soccer player needs to have great lateral movement; a sprinter needs explosive power in a straight line. Testing reveals where an athlete can improve for his or her sport, and the workout program is developed based on that information.
Sparta isn’t alone in this quest—the intellectual spirit behind its approach is something like the spirit that powers innovation in Silicon Valley. It’s a systems-based approach, one that tries to boil athletic performance down to its essential parts and then works to improve each one. It’s a way of viewing training and sports science more like a software engineer would, rewriting code to improve performance at every turn.
Think of it as hacking the athlete by pulling together all you can discover about the individual player, and matching it to what they have to do on the field. For NFL players, this approach has lead to a greater match of player to position, and that will only accelerate in the future. Fifty years from now, when the NFL is getting ready for Super Bowl 100, we will see even more diversity in body types between positions, and athletes who have had every bit of their performance optimized through more targeted training.
Taking the Test
To see what these athletes do at Sparta Performance Science, I’m getting ready for my performance testing—the same test that the company does with clients like Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies, and the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars. The test itself is simple: I’ll step onto a contraption called a “force plate,” which measures the impulses that come through my feet onto the ground. I’ll do six vertical jumps as high and explosively as I can, and then Sparta’s software will crunch all those numbers and give me what they call a “movement signature.”
That signature will break down three different aspects of the force I apply when I jump. The “load” captures how quickly I can start to develop force. “Explode” is a measurement of how well I can transfer that force. And “drive” tells us how long I can produce that force, how I finish the movement. Think of the three of them as a chain that links together as I jump.
I do my six trials, and then go over to the computer, where Phil Wagner waits for the results to be calculated. It turns out that my movement signature shows acceptable load and explode, and very high drive compared with the other two variables. At Sparta, they call this sort of result (in which one variable is way out of whack from the other two) an “extreme” signature; in their lingo, I have an extreme drive movement pattern.
Wagner runs down what they know about athletes with this movement signature. “These sorts of athletes tend to excel in sports or situations that revolve around timing,” says Wagner. “You’ll see basketball players who are good on the pick-and-roll with this.” A high drive means that you’re able to produce force over a longer period. Consequently, you’re able to time its application more precisely. “You’re also in increased danger of knee and lower back pain,” Wagner says.
“So, what would you do with me if I was one of your athletes?” I ask Wagner.
“Well, that depends on what sport you want to play,” he replies. “If you were looking to run faster like a wide receiver, we’d look to increase your explode.”
I tell him that I’ve been trying to improve my golf game. Wagner suggests I work on my load—focusing on the front of my body like the ankle, knee, and quad, and working to increase their strength. “That’s where force generation begins,” he says.
The testing is just part of what Sparta does. The other part is turning those test results into training plans, based on the movement patterns of the athlete and the sport in which he or she is looking to compete. I could spend lots of time trying to increase my explode, for instance, but it’s not really an athletic skill I need (wide receiver not being one of my current goals). There’s only so much time and energy available to all of us, elite athlete and weekend warrior alike. Anything you decide to do takes away from your ability to do something else—an hour watching TV means an hour not spent at the gym. Wagner and his team are trying to build a system that ensures that all of their athletes are focused on the biggest bang for the buck in every single aspect of performance.
In a scientific paper, N is shorthand for the number of participants, or the sample size. There’s a lively debate in science about how statistics are used, how big a sample size needs to be, and how significant the variations between groups need to be to truly demonstrate an effect in a study. But generally, more subjects—a bigger N—is better. The larger the group of people you try something with, the more authoritative you can be with your conclusions.
All of us who are trying to improve athletically—from gold medalists on down to you and me—are involved in an ongoing experiment with one subject. Or to put it another way, N=1. And those individual experiments are how the athletes of the future—like the players who will line up for Super Bowl 100—are going to continue to amaze us.
Adapted from Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Mark McClusky, 2014.