Take an in-depth look at the best wearable technology for athletes in professional and collegiate sports and see which one is best for you
Wearable technology has undergone an explosion in innovation and exposure in the last few years. And according to some sources, it’s just getting started. Forbes predicts that the smart wearable technology market will double by 2022 and become a $27 Billion market. There is a plethora of options to choose from, each suited for a specific need. There is no single best wearable technology for athletes across the board, but there are major players in each category that helps solve a different issue. To help you make sense of it all, we’ve collected details on the best wearable technology for athletes currently available and the type of collection each one is best suited for.
Let’s get started:
In the sporting context, inertial sensors are made up of accelerometers to measure force and acceleration, a gyroscope to give an indication of rotation, and a magnetometer to measure body orientation. These sensors collect data across three axes and capture athlete movement in minute detail. The use of inertial sensors is often combined with algorithms to make data meaningful, useable and specific to sporting actions. These algorithms are refined with machine learning so movements can be ‘learned’ by the system and differentiate between a jump to the right or jump to the left, for example. Other uses include measuring bowling in cricket, jumping in basketball, or tackling in rugby.
One of the most popular uses of inertial sensors is in trying to quantify athlete readiness and fatigue in the field. Fixed, submaximal protocols are often included in athlete warm up while they wear sensors. Data collected via sensors such as IMeasureU is incredibly sensitive and is able to detect changes in acceleration or direction of acceleration which may change with injury or fatigue. Each athlete has an individual movement signature, so coaches and sports scientists can compare an athlete to his/her ‘normal’ self. Inertial sensors can be very compact which allows them to be placed on different areas of the body. There has been a recent push to measure load not just on the body as a whole, but at the source of each limb, something that inertial sensors are uniquely suited for. Common placements for inertial sensors are typically at the ankle for running sports, at the waist to detect jumping, and in between the scapula to approximate rough body movement. Inertial sensors such as IMeasureU have dramatically increased the sensor sampling rate (1,000 hz to 1,600 hz) which allows for very detailed analysis of high-speed movements. An increase in its capability to record very high accelerations (16 g to 200 g) means that we can now measure movements such as high velocity cutting, acceleration and deceleration, and jumping.
When to Use
Inertial sensors excel for sports where the athlete is performing small movements in a tight area or where load to a specific limb is important, like soccer and basketball. They provide good insights into the return to play journey due to this ability and can aid in providing info to athletes recovering from injury. Because they can generally record data directly to the device, IMUs can easily be used indoors, across long distances, and even underwater in some cases. The ability to measure without added infrastructure also tends to translate to inertial sensors costing much less than some other options.
IMUs do not connect to satellites or velocity anchors unless paired with a GPS unit. Therefore they cannot measure athlete speed or distance covered directly. However, some companies are developing models to turn the measured accelerations into speed or distances.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
Major Players: Catapult, Statsports
What it is: Global positioning systems (GPS) have become synonymous with elite sporting organizations with companies like Catapult and StatSports enjoying a strong foothold in the elite market. GPS tracking devices are worn by athletes on the upper back in an elasticated bra and communicate with GPS satellites in low earth orbit. These satellites triangulate the position of the athlete in the field to monitor changes in athlete position over time. This allows these units to calculate athlete speed, acceleration, and distance covered. This technology was born out of the Australian Institute of Sport in 2004 with the first device collecting data at a frequency of 5 hz meaning it was collecting 5 data points per second. However, as wearable technology has evolved and the reliance on GPS has increased, devices such as the GPEXE Pro² by GPEXE now collects data at 18 hz, ensuring high speed movements are captured.
In more recent years, GPS companies have added accelerometers to their devices to give deeper insights into actions which happen on the court or the field. Accelerometers have become crucial, especially to those involved in indoor sports such as basketball where a clear path to satellites signal is impossible. They are also able to collect data at much higher frequencies and allow practitioners to drill down even further into an athlete’s locomotion, not just identifying how far or how fast they ran but what each foot strike looked like.
When to Use
Large team sports where distance and speed are important metrics. GPS devices typically offer the most insights in outdoor sports where distance and speed make up the biggest workload on the athlete, such as soccer and American football. GPS units are easy to distribute across large teams, so they are a good way to roughly measure the loads of large groups of people.
Relying on data from satellites imposes some limitations on GPS’ uses. They can not be used indoors, or in fields with large overhangs, giving them trouble in even some outdoor stadiums. The units need to be located between the scapula on the athlete’s back, so they cannot offer limb specific loads and struggle to quantify loads in tight spaces or where non-running movements significantly contribute to the athlete’s load, such as basketball or volleyball.
Heart Rate Monitors
Heart rate monitors were one of the earliest wearable technologies available to practitioners in elite sport. Simple training modifications based on how many minutes each player spent in the ‘red zone’ are easy to monitor and implement. Measuring heart rate is a way of tracking an athlete’s internal load, helping detect the bodies response to the external loads placed upon it. Heart rate is often the first wearable technology teams will invest in due to its simplicity and ability to provide insight when paired with other technologies.
As technology has progressed, hardware has become smaller and more ergonomically designed and the software offering deeper insights. Companies such as FirstBeat are leading the way in this area of wearable technology, measuring heart rate variability in addition to simply beats per minute. Due to the invasive nature of the traditional heart rate strap, many elite teams are looking for alternative ways to measure heart rate data during practice. This has led to the current surge in development of smart garments, which have heart rate sensors (along with other sensors as well) integrated directly into the garments fibers. GPS companies such as Catapult have now integrated heart rate straps into their vests which means that athletes only need to wear one accessory, not two.
When to use
Heart rate sensors are easy to use and understand so they can be used in most sports. They offer valuable data from day one and the metrics are easy to understand. When combined with other wearable technologies that measure the athlete’s external load, they can offer even more insight into the physiology of the athlete.
Most of the currently available heart rate monitors measure by tracking signal across the skin, leaving them open to reliability issues. Wetness of the skin or other obstructions of the sensors can lead to unreliable readings. The most accurate methods for measuring heart rate are currently still restricted to the lab.
Local Positioning Systems (LPS)
Major Players: Kinexon, Catapult, StatSports
Due to the innate issues with GPS systems, especially when trying to measure an athlete indoors, companies such as KINEXON, Catapult and StatSports have developed their own local positioning systems (LPS). Local positioning systems remove the reliance on satellite constellations by installing receivers that communicate with the units instead. This locally deployed infrastructure allows higher sampling rates, greater accuracy (signals only travel a few yards, rather than up to space), and smaller units.
The increased accuracy allows teams to use the data for tactical purposes as well as traditional load management. Some setups are even starting to use LPS data for real time media broadcasting of stats and overlays.
When to Use
When player positioning data is needed indoors or with precise accuracy. If you are trying to get live metrics on a tv broadcast, this is the best option.
LPS systems are generally very expensive to implement given the required infrastructure and the technical expertise needed for setup. LPS systems are not portable, so teams may also supplement their tracking with inertial sensors or gps units. The price and portability issues generally put this solution out of reach for most teams.
Major Players: Fatigue Science, FitBit, Beddit
Sleep trackers are one of the most widely adopted forms of wearable technology on the market. Companies such as Fitbit and Apple have made this sort of information incredibly accessible, however getting valid and reliable information with many consumer devices can be almost impossible. When it comes to wearable technology, practitioners must be research led to ensure that the devices that they are giving to players are providing data that is actionable. Getting data for the sake of it and not feeding that back to the athlete can often lead to athletes losing interest and buy in also being lost. In professional sport however, it can be a fine balance between ‘invisible monitoring’ and becoming intrusive on their lives. Wearing a watch that tracks activity throughout the day and night is often seen to be on that borderline. Companies such as Beddit have tried to alleviate this problem by placing sensors under the bed sheet to detect movement rather than movement on the wrist.
When to Use
To ensure that athletes are getting the necessary rest to facilitate recovery from sporting competition. Tracking sleep may encourage athletes to value their sleep more and therefore improve their sleep hygiene.
A common fault with many sleep trackers is that they give you the information, but not necessarily any actionable insights to change behaviour. Even in the elite sport world, not many practitioners are sleep experts so only common recommendations are provided. Tracking sleep may also be seen as too intrusive by athletes.
Velocity Based Training (VBT)
Major Players: Train with PUSH, Gym Aware, Beast
Moving away from the field and into the weight room sees an increase in wearable technology available to practitioners. One area of considerable growth over the last 10 years is in body and bar tracking, often termed velocity based training (VBT). VBT is a simple method of training which uses technology to measure bar or body speed to enhance the quality of training. This is certainly not a new method of training and there has been technology around for the last 20 years which has been used in elite sport to track bar speed, however with the increased availability of accelerometers and a move towards wearable technology devices, popularity has increased significantly. Linear position transducers (LPT) were the original technology on the market which involved a tether attached to the bar and as the athlete moved the bar, calculations were computed within the devices to measure velocity. This then progressed to that data being transmitted to iPads and tablets to allow more flexibility for coaches. Now we are seeing a surge in VBT companies moving towards accelerometer-based, wearable technologies due to their flexibility, cost effectiveness and workflow.
When to Use
VBT should be used when more objective data is required to program strength and power training for athletes. Tracking and programming based off movement velocity is a move away from traditional periodization and can give greater insights into fatigue and athlete readiness.
Although accelerometer solutions are very cost efficient, there are still improvements to be made in the reliability of the data, therefore before purchasing such equipment, consider researching scientific journals in this area.
The best wearable technology for athletes under your care will ultimately depend on what specific problems you are trying to solve, since each one offers different advantages.
- Inertial Sensors are best suited for monitoring recovery and tracking individual limbs
- GPS Units will allow you to track velocity metrics outdoors
- Heart Rate Monitors are a good starting point for tracking athlete conditioning.
- LPS Systems will give you velocity metrics indoors with pinpoint accuracy
- Sleep Trackers will give you insight into an athletes sleep routine
- VBT Sensors will allow you to track athletes in the weight room
If you’d like to speak with a sports scientist to discuss what solution might be best for you, get in touch with us at IMeasureU.
If you would like to know how a number of elite clubs and their practitioners are using IMU Step, check out these articles –
Utilizing live data during rehabilitation – a case study with Leicester Tigers Rugby Club
Are Minutes and Mileage All Runners Need? – Investigating Training Load in Runners with the University of Memphis
IMU Step: Helping to monitor chaos during rehab?