For these Australian engineers, competing at the Olympic level is all in a day’s work.
Australian elite athletes competing at the Olympic Games in Rio, several of whom are engineers, have increasingly utilised technology in order to innovate their way to the top.
The outfit she wears during a race is not as important as you might think, said champion hurdler Michelle Jenneke. As long as it is tight fitting and stays out of the way, its materials will have little effect on the outcome of the race. On the other hand, the shoes she is wearing can make a dramatic difference.
Jenneke, an Australian Olympian and third-year mechatronic engineering student at The University of Sydney, wears Puma shoes with seven-millimetre spikes. In the bottom of each shoe is a hard plate made from plastic or carbon fibre. The plate keeps the sole as firm as possible.
“You don’t want something that is weighing you down, but if you can have a really stiff plate then it gives you more return off the ground,” Jenneke says. “If you can reduce your ground contact time then you will go faster.”
Jenneke’s shoes are just a small ingredient in the technological mix that influences her training and ultimately her final performance. Several years ago, elite athletes simply trained harder than everybody else around them in order to earn their place on the podium. Today, thanks to technology, they train smarter.
Sport and Big Data
When create first contacted Joseph Winter, Head of Innovation, Research and Development at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), he was in his car on the way to Sydney to collect data on a horse.
At the Olympic Games in London, he explains, one or two potential gold medal winners had to pull out of equestrian events when their horses pulled up lame. In an endeavour to understand the injury mechanisms, the AIS is conducting research with Equestrian Australia and Deakin University to develop signal processing algorithms that can count and monitor the number and types of jumps horses do during training.
“We have what is called an Athlete Management System,” Winter said.
“Every day, the athletes enter various data such as how they slept, how they feel, what their base heart rate was when they woke up, how long they trained at the gym, what intensity they trained at, etc. We have been collecting this data for about three years and as a result have been able to quantify exactly what is a safe training band in terms of percentage of load.
“Obviously you still want to stress the athletes so they get some physiological adaptation, but you do not want to break them. Our research has shown that when an athlete is injured once, they will likely end up being injured three times because they will come back too soon or over-train before they are ready. That is not good, because our data also shows that if they are out for two weeks as a result of an injury, then their chance of hitting their objective for any given training cycle will drop to 80%. If they are out for longer, that figure drops dramatically.”
Having analysed the athlete data, experts at the AIS have come to understand how important it is to keep athletes injury free.
“We consider our horses to be one of our groups of athletes,” Winter said.
“We don’t know why a few horses were injured before the Games in London, but it could have been because of overtraining. Now we have developed a way to monitor that.”
In the deep end
Olympian Mitch Larkin, a backstroke world champion, multiple gold medallist and Bachelor of Engineering student (Queensland University of Technology), explains one of the greatest challenges of his sport as being around the “feel for the water”.
“This can be the hardest thing to explain to those who haven’t experienced it,” he said.
“It’s the ability to move your hand and arms in a specific way, creating the largest surface area possible, allowing your arm to grab hold of the water and accelerate your body forward.”
The most important numbers in swimming, apart from course time, are strokes per lap and stroke rate, Larkin says. A high stroke rate and a low stroke count equates to maximum feel for the water and, therefore, maximum speed.
With this in mind, each month Larkin is strapped by a harness around his waist to a force gauge secured to a starting block, then swims at his race stroke rate for 30 seconds.
“A team of sports scientists then analyse the data received and find the stroke rate that results in the most efficient rate, the highest force output in newtons, while being able to sustain this rate over the duration of my race,” he said.
The results allow Larkin to analyse which parts of the stroke are more powerful than others. He can also compare power output from left and right arms to check symmetry and balance.
Studying engineering, Larkin says, has helped him to better understand forces such as flotation, lift and balance.
“Take Newton’s third law – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” he said.
“Sometimes certain muscles in my body become tight from training and my technique isn’t looking as good as it should … We go back and, analysing my stroke in slow motion, often find that tight area is causing a delay in my stroke as there is another area trying to counter-balance it … This is just a small example, but it’s fascinating how everything is connected.”
The academic experience also leads to some quirky research ideas, Larkin said. He’d like to see a study on the ideal spacing between fingers to ensure the greatest surface area before the tension of the water molecules begins to slip through the fingers. The backstroke champ also jokes about whether a full-body tattoo might help to fill in tiny gaps within the skin to help repel water molecules, and therefore act like a high-tech racing suit!
QUT engineering student Jack McLoughlin is another swimmer representing Australia in Rio. His specialty is the gruelling 1500-metre freestyle. To qualify for Rio he took 24 seconds off his personal best time. How did McLoughlin do it? He stuck to the beat, he said.
“I’m into engineering so I’m a big sucker for technology,” McLoughlin said. “Probably the single most important item for me is a waterproof Finis metronome which slips under your swim cap. I set it at 72 beats per minute and it ensures I swim with the correct stroke rate, which is all-important in my event.”
Although he’s not allowed to use the metronome in competition, it is his constant training partner, McLoughlin said.
Sometimes, the night before an important swim, he’ll sleep with the metronome on his ear to make sure his body is completely in sync with the beat. As Winter pointed out, calibration and accuracy is everything when the device is so vital to results.
Engineers at the AIS
Over the past few years, the AIS has brought on board no less than seven engineers to complement the existing team of scientists, technical officers and technicians in helping athletes and sports groups overcome challenges.
One works with yachting to test and develop vital parts such as masts. Another works with Paralympians to develop stronger and lighter wheelchairs. A third works with cyclists. Others build VO2 Max instruments to test athletes’ breathing in the gym, or they work with experts to develop new blood/lactate measuring methods.
Winter, who is one of the seven engineers, said the Institute’s moves to employ engineers began a couple of years before he joined when Dr Nick Brown, the Deputy Director, Performance, Science and Innovation, realised the value of a more structured engineering approach.
“We had technical officers and they did some amazing work,” Winter said.
“Having engineers brings an additional element to the solutions. You need a mix. You can’t have only engineers or only technicians. Nick Brown identified that engineers were missing from this ecosystem.”
Winter says they look for individuals with the right attitude and mindset for sport.
“We need can-do people who, for instance, may have trained as a mechanical engineer but if the problem is electrical then they will figure out how to solve it,” he said.
A large part of the work they do in Canberra is around servicing the internal disciplines like Physiology and Movement Science.
“They might require a new VO2 Max machine to be built, for example,” Winter said.
“The engineer in Sydney who works with sailing helps them with mechanical testing of the boats and the masts.”
He also helps them set up data warehouses and works on instrumentation. The engineer in Adelaide manages the engineering activity for the High Performance Unit, particularly in cycling. Each engineer identifies with the particular needs of sports they are looking after.
One of the major projects coming up for the Innovation, Research and Development team is the development of a testing facility for wearable technologies.
“Many people who exercise regularly are more interested in repeatability and consistency. They are not necessarily worried about degree of accuracy,” Winter said.
“For us, if a device says the athlete is doing 61 km/hr instead of 62 km/hr, we want to know that is actually the case. We would like to position ourselves as the Choice magazine of wearable technologies.”
Winter and his engineering colleagues at the Australian Institute of Sport are setting up a device testing system that will mean they can publish evidence-based reports around the accuracy and reliability of specific brands and products. They are also developing a calibration unit for skin-fold callipers, used to measure body fat composition.
“Once we make sure all of the callipers across our network are properly calibrated, it will mean that if an athlete travels from Perth to Canberra, they will get a reading just as accurate as they got at home. Results should not vary simply because we have two different pieces of equipment.”
Shooting the breeze
Although she completed her Bachelor of Engineering (chemical) last year, Catherine Skinner hasn’t yet actively sought a job. The champion shotgun shooter has been too busy training to make it to the top of her chosen sport. That training has paid off – she’s going to Rio.
Skinner’s university education has opened her eyes to the engineering challenges within her sport. While women’s trap is quite traditional, technology has been creeping in.
“There have been all sorts of little changes, such as recoil reduction in the gun and changes in the cartridge shells to achieve better speeds of shot,” Skinner said.
Modular stocks have been employed by some brands to help reduce recoil. Other gun manufacturers, such as Skinner’s sponsor Beretta, have been working on extending the conical section of barrel, immediately in front of the cartridge, which acts to condense the spread of the shot. Lengthening this section reduces the kickback. Some shells that increase speed of the shot, by using a different gunpowder mix, result in greater recoil, not always a good thing, she said.
“Particular powders can be too explosive. I have seen pictures of what happens when people put in the wrong ammunition and it banana-peels their barrel,” Skinner said.
“Also, we will often fire hundreds of shots in a day. You don’t want to feel as if you’ve been in a boxing match.”
The extra 1%
Success in elite sport comes down to the ability to find an extra 1%. Increasingly, sports bodies are bringing engineers on board and making them a vital part of the team that goes about finding that extra per cent. While most athletes say that little has changed in the way they train over the past five to ten years, they all believe technology has influenced the content of their training.
“My general day-to-day training is not that different because of technology,” Jenneke said.
“I do think technology is making a big change, but it is a change that is difficult to identify. Because of the data I get back from my monthly biomechanical screening, or because of the slow-motion video my mother films on an iPhone at training, I might end up doing different drills or different exercises.
In doing those drills and exercises, I don’t consider that I am doing anything different. But actually the reason I am doing those specific exercises is because of technology.”
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