Winning with data
US Speedskating has joined forces with IBM and M&S Consulting to transform the way it collects and analyzes data from athletes, both during training sessions and in their daily lives.
To improve its ability to capture accurate timing data, the organization has equipped skaters with transponders, and installed wire loops at several key points around its long and short skating tracks. When a skater crosses over a loop, it sends a signal to a decoder which identifies the athlete and provides a timestamp—enabling real-time recording of each athlete’s lap times.
M&S Consulting has provided an integration solution that uses a tiny Raspberry Pi computer to capture the timing data from the decoder and automatically transmit it to the cloud, where it is captured by IBM Watson IoT™ Platform and simultaneously stored in an IBM Cloudant® database and streamed to a custom-developed iPad app for coaches.
“Tracking athletes’ lap-times at training sessions was a logistical nightmare before; today, it couldn’t be easier thanks to IBM,” notes Shane Domer. “The iPad app is perfect for our coaches—they’re familiar with the technology and they can easily carry it around on the ice as they work through a session.”
Coaches can use the app to quickly set up a training session, splitting skaters into different training groups and establishing a workout for each group. Each workout comprises a sequence of training activities known as “efforts”—where an effort might involve, for example, an athlete skating four laps with a target lap time of 35 seconds per lap.
The coach can start the session on the app at any time, even well in advance of when skaters are set to begin an effort. The app automatically detects when the athletes have reached sufficient speed to be taking part in an effort; it tracks each individual’s lap times and presents all the results on a single screen in real time.
Shane Domer explains: “Now that our coaches don’t have to worry about using a stopwatch, they can keep their eyes much more closely on each athlete’s performance and technique. And they can instantly refer to the app to see whether skaters are hitting their targets for each effort—something that was much harder to keep track of in the past.”
Importantly, the app is able to intelligently log or exclude laps based on pre-established parameters, ensuring that it records only relevant training data. For example, if a coach has set a specific lap time for a group of athletes, the app will ignore any laps that are run significantly slower than this target, such as warm-up laps or active recovery laps. In this way, coaches can focus solely on actual training times, saving time and ensuring that their analysis is not impacted by irrelevant information.
Coaches have been quick to embrace the app, and US Speedskating is already working on augmenting the solution with a host of additional features. In the future, the organization will incorporate voice recognition capabilities, enabling coaches to set up sessions without having to type on the iPad screen. Again, this will allow them to save time—something that is often in short supply in hectic training sessions.
US Speedskating also plans to add more loops to its long and short tracks, which will enable coaches to gain much more nuanced insight into how athletes move around the ice.
“By breaking down performance over a lap, coaches will be able to see where skaters speed up and slow down, and how efficient they are at getting off the mark, going around corners and even making transitions during relay events,” remarks Shane Domer. “Armed with this information, the team can make targeted adjustments to skating technique and strategy to help skaters race better, potentially giving them a winning edge.”
On-ice training data forms just one part of a much bigger picture for US Speedskating. There are a host of other factors that can impact how athletes perform in training, from strength and conditioning work, physiotherapy and nutrition to sleep, travel and even the skinsuits that skaters wear.
Shane Domer states: “We’ve created a feature called a readiness dashboard that provides a snapshot of the physical and mental condition of each athlete before they go into a session. We can see the workload they’ve been under, how well they slept the night before, and their own ratings of how they are feeling in terms of fatigue and wellness.
“Coaches can use this information to make better-informed decisions about how each athlete should train. For instance, a coach might have a certain program in mind, but if an athlete shows up on the day who hasn’t slept well and hasn’t fully recovered from sessions earlier in the week, they can put together a lower-impact program that is still beneficial to the athlete without overtraining them.”
Eyes on the prize
Thanks to its newfound visibility into athlete performance, US Speedskating can shape a more efficient and individualized approach to training.
Shane Domer says: “Our coaches typically run one or two priority training sessions a week where they want athletes to show up feeling ready to execute the session at a very high level. Everything around these priority sessions is auxiliary training, which contributes to overall fitness and performance, but where we’re not looking for personal-best lap-times.
“In the past, there was an underlying assumption that athletes had to go hard in every session, which could lead to them coming into priority sessions in a state of fatigue. As a result, they wouldn’t perform at their best when they really needed to.
“Now that we have much richer, more reliable data on training workload and how each skater responds to that load, we can make sure that athletes aren’t training in a way that is detrimental to their performance in priority sessions. This makes for much more efficient and impactful training.”
He continues: “Training workload is a tricky thing to get right. If an athlete goes too hard too often or too soon, it’s likely that they will get sick or injured or peak before the competition starts. On the other hand, if they don’t push hard enough, they probably won’t improve fast enough to win races. And every athlete is different, so how they handle injury, strength conditioning or a certain training regime will vary significantly.
“By giving us a way to track how each and every athlete is responding to training and all the elements surrounding it, IBM is helping us gain a better understanding of exactly what our skaters need in the months, weeks and days leading up to a competition. If they aren’t improving from week-to-week, then we can look at factors that could potentially be causing them to plateau, and make corrections to get them back on track in good time.”
Shane Domer concludes: “We believe that combining hard data with our coaching staff’s experience and intuition can deliver a potentially game-changing advantage. IBM has equipped us with an incredibly powerful way to keep track of each athlete’s training and to ensure that every individual reaches his or her maximum potential. We are really excited to continue working with IBM to enhance the app’s capabilities, and guide more targeted, effective training.”