New technologies are emerging to help athletes train smarter, see farther, and keep their cool. illustration by Ryan Snook

How to Build a Better Athlete

New technologies are emerging to help physical competitors train smarter, see farther, and keep their cool.

This spring you may want to get in better shape, become more active, and maybe even train for a marathon or a triathlon. If so, there are plenty of technology options to help you along the way. The science, research, and technology used by professional athletes is becoming more accessible and affordable to anyone interested in pushing the limits of their own athletic ability. 

New gadgets have smaller chips, faster radios, better batteries, and the ability to display complex data via online and mobile applications. Smartphones are always connected, and more powerful than some desktops. And, while all of this is happening, endurance sports are becoming more popular:

• USA Triathlon had fewer than 20,000 members in 1999. Last year, it oversaw 655 races with 276,171 participants.

• There are about 145 CrossFit-affiliated gyms and workout centers in North Texas. 

• For runners, there are at least 157 organized races within 25 miles of Dallas scheduled for 2014, including marathons, half marathons, 10Ks, and 5Ks. 

Here are some local breakthroughs that you may start to see at the gyms, races, and events near you.

On Equal Footing

Fort Worth’s RPM2 (Remote Performance Measurement/Monitoring), one of USA Triathlon’s performance partners, was formed by Johnny Ross, an entrepreneur who went through major reconstructive knee surgery about six years ago. 

Ross recalls that during his rehabilitation he was using bathroom scales to perform weight-bearing exercises. That felt archaic, Ross says, and the experience led him to consider how foot pressure could be measured another way, and whether there was a market for athletes in training. What resulted was a high-tech shoe insert with piezoelectric sensors, solid state computer chips, and a Bluetooth radio used to constantly share data to smartphones and other digital devices. The shoe insert objectively measures the mechanical movements of the athlete so that he can achieve bilateral equivalency, the state of applying equal force, weight, and range of motion to his limbs. “Bilateral equivalence will make athletes stronger, faster, and less prone to injury,” Ross says. 

The parent company of RPM2, MedHab, is using the same technology to create FDA-approved medical devices that physicians and physical therapy patients can use to help people recover from surgeries and injuries more quickly. “The technology behind this is not trivial. It has taken us $4 million and more than four years to bring this to market,” Ross says.

Seeing the Ball

A new kind of interactive vision test from a small company called 20over8 is already changing athletic performance. Although 20/20 vision is thought to be perfect, company founder Dr. Daniel Laby says 20/20 is not good enough for most competitive athletes, especially baseball players. The most optimum vision a human can have is 20/8, hence the company’s name. 

Laby has been touting his computerized vision test technology, called OptimEYEs, since graduating from the first class of Health Wildcatters, a Dallas-based healthcare seed accelerator, in August. Several pro sports teams, including the World Series-winning Boston Red Sox, are now using 20over8’s test with solid results. 

Instead of the standard eye chart, the 20over8 test displays targets of different sizes and different levels of contrast, and incorporates movement and timing to give a more complete picture of someone’s vision, Laby says. Then it uses cloud computing to process and compare results to its database to see where improvement can be made based on the athlete’s goals.

“It’s just these circles and shapes and it looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” says Carl D. Soderstrom, one of the Health Wildcatters founders who is also a principal  at Green Park & Golf Ventures.

Now popular in major league training rooms, Laby says 20over8 has made its test available on the iPad and similar devices to expand its use: “We wanted to move that technology down the food chain to colleges, high schools, and even people who play on the weekend who simply don’t see the ball well enough to hit it a majority of the time.”

Hot Blooded

A more general fitness measurement device hit the market in February from Dallas-based Hothead Technologies. HHT makes temperature measurement devices with biosensors that warn when someone is close to overheating. This has industrial applications (firefighters and hazmat suits) and is frequently used in team sports (football helmets). 

HHT’s latest device is the Spree headband, a novel kind of fitness monitor that helps an athlete find his or her “optimal performance zone” by combining body temperature, heart rate, distance, speed, and duration of workout. To do all that it had to combine a plethysmograph, a medical-grade thermistor, a low-energy Bluetooth radio, a battery, and motion sensors into a headband that can interact with a smartphone app while you work out. 

Why a headband? Eva Zeisel, vice president of operations at HTT, explains that chest straps are too awkward and uncomfortable, and wrist and armbands don’t provide reliable enough data. 

With more athletes pushing their endurance limits, getting the right data to prevent overheating is critical. “If you’re not properly hydrated you can easily get heat illness, which can lead to cramps or even death, in extreme cases,” Zeisel says. “If you overheat once, you’re done for the day and maybe even for the week. This helps you to warm up and work out without overheating.”

The Spree headband costs about $300 and its accompanying iPhone app is free.

Hot Market

Those are three new technology-based approaches to tweaking athletic performance. The race in this market is just getting started.

Dallas-based market researcher Parks Associates uses the phrase “connected wellness devices” to describe internet-connected activity trackers, pedometers, heart-rate monitors, and similar gadgets. By the end of 2015, Parks Associates forecasts that the market for connected wellness devices could be as high as $2 billion.

“Connected” is the key phrase. Fitness technology to boost athletic performance is enhanced by internet connectivity. As devices are connected to larger databases and social networks, athletes can make more meaningful comparisons.

Even employers and insurance companies may soon buy fitness trackers for their employees and insured clients to reinforce the idea that lifestyle and health choices can improve over time, says Harry Wang, director of health and mobile product research for Parks Associates.

Tracking fitness doesn’t have to be complicated. Fort Worth’s Liesel Streich, owner of Limitless Endurance, trains triathletes. She says the first thing most of her clients buy is a GPS watch for measuring distance. “When I first started training, I drove my car in a one-mile loop and just ran that,” Streich says.

Now she uses a web-based service called TrainingPeaks to help her to create training plans for her athletes and look at their GPS results and other workout data. Trainers help athletes be accountable, she says. “It does help to know that someone’s watching.”

SMU physiologist and biomechanist Peter Weyand measures human performance and frequently writes on the subject of how fast humans can run. His lab has high-speed cameras, computers, diagnostic equipment, and what could be one of the world’s most expensive treadmills—it can handle speeds over 70 miles per hour and also measures the pressure a runner uses to strike the ground with his foot.

Weyand sees an undeniable trend in fitness tech. “Whether we’re looking at aerobic fitness levels or motion sensors or ground-reaction sensors, there is a clear path from our lab to mobile technology,” he says.

Smaller, lighter, and more mobile devices will pair with more apps and internet-connected services in the coming months. The more affordable, the better. According to a Consumer Electronics Association survey in December, about 27 million consumers intend to buy a fitness tracker or similar device in the next 12 months. 

“There is no cultural indication of gadget fatigue,” Weyand says.