The Mechanics of Gold: How the Study of Biomechanics Can Keep Athletes Healthy in the Future

Article by: Nina S. Rafeek

“[…] a growing body of epidemiological and biomechanical research says that we can and must do a better job in managing training-related injury risks.  It may not be easy, but I’m optimistic that we can and will do better as our knowledge builds.” – Professor Tyson Beach

At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, some of our Canadian athletes have proved to be true outliers in the realm of the elite.  Penny Oleksiak, at only 16 years old, managed to pick up 4 medals, including a Gold in Women’s swimming.  Andre De Grasse, 21, earned an impressive 3 medals at the Rio Olympics after only starting his running career at Penny’s age.

While these young athletes are just getting started in their careers, they will have to find ways to constantly improve their performance to maintain an edge over the impending competition of the new cohorts in the 2020 summer Olympics.  As these athletes continue their rigorous training schedules, keeping healthy and preventing injury will be a major key to their success.  One way they can do this is to perfect their mechanics.

Tyson Beach, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, is on the forefront of Biomechanical Research.   His team uses cutting-edge technology and computer modeling techniques to measure and analyze the mechanics and control of human movement.

Professor Beach offered some insight on how the study of biomechanics and its potential can improve sports performance while keeping athletes healthy by preventing injury.

FINDING THE MECHANICAL WEAK LINKS

“Our goal is to find and eliminate the mechanical weak links that limit an athlete’s performance potential and increase their injury risk.  We’re not only interested in how high one jumps or fast one runs, but how they jump and how they run.  By analyzing the motions, forces, and muscle activity of the best athletes, we can understand how they achieve such amazing performance outcomes without getting injured. Our research is used to design specialized training programs for athletes, but it is also applicable to anyone who is physically active.”

“Our work is complimentary to exercise physiology and psychology. All of these things matter when you’re trying to help athletes perform at the highest level. Where we fit in, is contributing knowledge about the anatomical and mechanical factors that influence movement effectiveness and safety. We study how body size and shape, joint mobility and stability, and muscular power, strength, endurance, and flexibility interact to affect health and performance. Our research results in assessment tools that are used to design customized training programs.

TO see an example of finding the mechanical weak links, check out U of T Professor Greg Wells’ contribution to “What Makes Andre so Fast” in the National Post

INDIVIDUALIZED TRAINING PROGRAMS

“If you have certain weaknesses or previous injuries, we are able to get a better understanding of what those [weak links] are and then that allows us to individualize and guide our interventions, whether it’s training or rehabilitation whatever it is so that we can really in the long term accumulate the training that’s needed.  Some things that are left unchecked in the short term at the expense of trying to do really well on a test in training can lead to be a ceiling on your performance in the long term.”

ENSURING LONGEVITY AND HEALTH BY TAKING A LONG-TERM APPROACH

“The benefits to be gained from well-designed athletic training programs are too numerous to describe here, but we have to take a long view, especially for young athletes.  Our research team aims to design and administer training in a way that not only improves performance, but also helps to keep athletes healthy enough to gain the performance benefits.  There are a lot of people who say ‘if you are a high performance athlete, you will suffer injuries in training.’  There is certainly a degree of truth that with increasing time and effort invested in training, the chance of being injured increases.  But, a growing body of epidemiological and biomechanical research says that we can and must do a better job in managing training-related injury risks.  It may not be easy, but I’m optimistic that we can and will do better as our knowledge builds.”

USING THE NEWEST TECHNOLOGY TO MEASURE PERFORMANCE

“One of the most exciting technological advancements in our field is on the use of miniature on-body measurement systems.  Without affecting their performance, these systems can measure the movements of athletes when they’re training and competing.  This means that biomechanics researchers no longer confined to working in laboratories.  Our “laboratories” now include weight rooms, tracks, courts, fields, and arenas.”

“Although these technological advancements are already changing where we do research, we’ve only just scratched the surface.  With the vast amounts of data now being collected, we’ll be able to ask questions that weren’t even considered in the past.”

MINING DATA FOR THE FUTURE OF SPORTS PERFORMANCE AND INJURY PREVENTION

“One emerging and exciting opportunity in our field is to measure as much as possible with the newest technologies, and to use machine learning algorithms to churn through all of the data collected.  Experts in computer science develop these algorithms, and use them together with sport and exercise scientists to develop new questions about how to improve performance and reduce injury risk.  In principle, this could allow us to make discoveries that weren’t even dreamed possible or predictable.  From a technological standpoint, this is what excites me most because I don’t even know if we’ve asked the best questions yet.”

To read about recent biomechanics research and commentary by UofT faculty, click the links to “In Perfect Asymmetry”, “What Makes De Grasse a Medal Threat in the 100 metres”, and “Right of the Blocks: The Science of Sprint Starts”.