Human athletes are using training technology from the future to become more like robots

We get by with a little help from our friends.
We get by with a little help from our friends.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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In an age when athletes have access to more advanced training techniques than ever before, the landscape of sports is entering a new realm. Today, it is not enough for an athlete to simply possess superior strength or talent. To rise above the competition, the modern athlete must train intelligently and use the most innovative techniques to outfox opponents. And technology can help with that.

Stephen Curry is considered by many to be the greatest shooter in National Basketball Association history. How does he average more than 30 points per game? There’s no doubt that he possesses an extraordinary amount of natural talent. But what really sets him apart is his drive to push his training to a place where few athletes have gone.

Curry’s complex, next-generation regimen involves a plethora of “Steph drills,” which often involve doing two things at once, like dribbling with one hand and catching a tennis ball with the other. To make it even harder, he uses military-grade goggles with strobing effects that produce blanks in the visual space, requiring him to react based on partial information. The result? He’s cognitively and physically prepared for virtually anything his defender throws at him.

Another advancement in modern training is tracking technology. These devices have the ability to provide intelligent feedback on various physiological properties. Sensors embedded in jerseys can now track a player’s performance metrics in order to calculate their risk of being injured, and they can also alert them when it is safe to return to play. Professional teams have been quick to invest in this kind of “smart” fitness clothing. For example, Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob and former player Jermaine O’Neal recently invested in Athos, a fitness apparel maker that utilizes electromyography technology to track muscle performance in real time.

Clothes aren’t the only items providing feedback. Trainers and coaches now have the ability to track multiple players at once through embedded sensors in fields and courts. Analysis of game data then reveals multiple strategies for improving performance. One prominent example is superstar Kobe Bryant’s new “smart basketball court.” Built by Nike for the express purpose of allowing Kobe to train basketball hopefuls in Shanghai, the court features both motion-tracking and LED visualization technology built directly into the floor.

Many other technologies are now hitting the market with the purpose of intelligently helping athletes get the most out of their workouts. NBA legend Lebron James is a fan of cryotherapy, which involves a chamber that seems straight out of a science fiction novel. These “cryosaunas” are cooled to icy temperatures as low as -250 °F (-157 °C) and can be used after an intense workout to reduce muscle fatigue and inflammation. While scientists are still debating the benefits of cryotherapy and other cold therapies, Kobe Bryant, Floyd Mayweather, and Michael Phelps all swear by its ability to alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness, which allows them to maintain the same performance level the next day.

Another innovation that has emerged in the past few years is virtual reality (VR). VR headsets allow the user to be immersed in a realistic, interactive 3D world. VR has found a practical application in sports, essentially allowing players to receive realistic, repetitive training by visualizing on-field scenarios—without the risk of injury.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is one of many pro football players to to adopt StriVR, a VR company that creates 360-degree training videos shot from a player’s point-of-view.  Palmer admits he’s typically anti-tech, but he’s excited for the potential of StriVR. “I don’t buy into all the new technology; I’m archaic and I thought, There is no way this can change the way I play quarterback,“ he said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “But I am all in on this.” After training with StriVR, Palmer enjoyed his highest-performing season as a pro while taking the Cardinals to within one game of the Super Bowl in 2015.

Sports scientists are now well aware of the disparity in training emphasis between the brain and the body and are developing methods to strengthen neuromuscular circuitry. For example, neurostimulation devices, when paired with athletic training, promise to help strengthen and optimize connections between the motor cortex and the muscles, leading to measurable increases in strength, explosiveness, and motor skills.

So what’s next for the fast-moving field of sports tech? It’s hard to say, but with so many resources now available to elite athletes, the key to success becomes creativity, intelligence, and drive. The two-hour marathon is a record that may never be broken, but should someone cross the 26.5-mile finish line in less that 120 minutes, you can bet it will be the athlete that committed everything not just to training harder, but but to training smarter—and with an eye towards innovation.