Role of Computers in Aiding Training and Fitness for the Olympics

Computers have infiltrated almost all aspects of life, and their ability to improve and enhance training methods and the fitness of Olympic athletes has been profound and is only set to increase substantially. Performance Monitoring

The success of any training program is ultimately judged by performance. It therefore follows that the more accurately and more often we can monitor the performance of an athlete, not only during competition but during their training and fitness conditioning, the more effective their training will be. Computers have provided significant advances in what aspects of an athlete’s performance we are able to monitor. Some areas of performance are more straightforward than others, and the range of performance monitoring varies depending on the type of sport. For example, the performance of a 100m sprinter can be measured simply in absolute terms of their finish time, whereas team sports, such as hockey, involve a greater range of potential performance variables. However, even in sprinting computers have provided significant aids to training and performance development. We are not only able to more accurately record the total time of a 100m sprint, but we can also break down the whole sprint into key sections to analyse in more detail the time makeup. This enables sprinters to see where they are losing time, such as during the first 3-5 strides of the acceleration phase.

For team sports, computers are able to monitor a wide range of information on an athlete’s performance. For example, football players can assess total distance covered, number of sprints made, tackles made and won. Indeed, almost any aspect of performance relevant to a sport can be recorded to provide accurate feedback on specific areas that an athlete can analyse and focus training on improving areas of weakness.

As well as monitoring performance from a results and performance breakdown point of view, computers have also provided significant insight into technical elements of Olympic sports. Super slow motion replays have enabled coaches to see exactly how the body is moving during an action, which has both provided a greater understanding of how that action actually occurs and also to assess how well their athletes are performing them. One area this has proved significantly useful has been the tennis serve, where the shockwaves of the impact of the racket on the ball and its effects on the body, particularly the transition of the arm through the motion, has provided a unique insight and resulted in development of technique by many top players. This computer technology can be used in almost any sport to provide greater understanding of technique. Development of three dimensional (3D) recordings has further enhanced our ability to assess the technique of an athlete. Being able to see an action from all angles throughout the whole motion phase, rather than from one view point, gives greater information on areas such as transition, balance, force distribution and compensation. Coaches and athletes can now record in high quality slow motion almost any action, rotate the viewing angle, pause, slow or speed up the motion and vary magnification. This all helps to provide a greater understanding of how the body works and moves, and how an athlete may vary their technique to be more efficient.

Physiology Monitoring

Perhaps the biggest developments in training as a result of computer technology have come from our increasing ability to monitor physiological aspects of the body during exercise. Monitoring performance allows us to assess coaching and training effects on performance, but being able to see physiological aspects in great detail has given us an in depth understanding of how the body works in relation to exercise.

Computers have allowed us to gain greater understanding of key physiological areas that are vital to exercise and sport, such as the body’s energy systems, muscle fibre compositions and the cardiovascular system. We can also monitor and measure how different sports require the use of different aspects of human physiology. By gaining better insights into the physiological requirements of elite sport, we can now better understand what areas of physiology an athlete needs to develop for their sport. For example, a sprinter needs a higher percentage of type II muscle fibres and greater efficiency of the anaerobic energy systems, while a marathon runner requires predominantly aerobic orientated energy efficiency with a greater body fat percentage body composition.

While the physiological differences between these two events are stark, as they are at the extremes of the scale, differences in these and other areas of physiology can be small and subtle both between events and within a single event that are no less significant. For example, flat water rowers of different distances may have subtle variations in fuel mix and energy systems that will require quite a different mixture of fitness training, while hockey player on the same team will also have different fitness requirements depending on their position. At elite level, these differences become starker and more important to understand.

A key part in conjunction with this is monitoring and measuring the physiological state of individual athletes. While it is important to understand the physiological requirements of a sport, it is equally important to then know and understand the physiological state of an athlete to make sure they prepare their body to best suite the physical demands of their sport. Computers enable us to accurately measure almost anything from maximal heart rate and lung capacity, oxygen mix and body temperature regulation to muscle fibre composition, maximal muscle contractile pressure and hydration levels. This not only enables coaches and trainers to assess what areas their athletes need to focus on in their training, but also assess how effective the training methods implemented are in bringing about the desired physiological changes and how these training methods may be improved to produce better results.

Increased Portability

One of the major obstacles to understanding a sport, both in terms of its physical and technical aspects, has been monitoring and assessing the sport in realistic conditions. Previously, in order to use computers to analyse a sport, it had to be done in a laboratory. This creates the problem that it is not conducted in the same environment as that of competition, and if the sport is not accurately replicated during monitoring the usefulness of any information gained is reduced. For some sports, such as cycling, an accurate replication of the sport can be created in a laboratory, but for others, such as a volleyball game, it is much more difficult. However, with the reduction in size of computer equipment and increased portability, monitoring and measurement of both physical and technical aspects of a sport has increasingly moved out of the lab and can be conducted actually within the competitive environment of a sport. A simple example of this is the heart rate monitor, which can be worn by almost any athlete while they compete and provide readings for the entire duration. More recently this has expanded into areas such as oxidant build up and body temperature regulation by ingesting small microchips that send or record information during competition.

Our increased ability to more accurately replicate the conditions of elite competition while we monitor an athlete’s performance is likely to be the source of the most significant developments in training techniques over the coming decade.

The increased portability of computer technology has also increased the ability of coaches, trainers and athletes to communicate with each other. The support an elite Olympic athlete now receives is substantial, in most cases being able to call on a range of coaches and mentors for different aspects of their performance, physiotherapists, nutritionists, psychologists and more. Portable computer technology now allows each these important contributors to an athlete’s success to send, receive and discuss information and developments whenever and wherever they need to, resulting in improved and quicker development throughout an athlete’s training cycle.

Social Networking and Interaction

Arguable the most significant advances within a certain sport have come from innovations in other sports. Many sports have similar attributes, and even those which don’t often have common ground in off-field areas such as preparation, psychology, nutrition and coaching styles. Many successful sports teams have gained a significant advantage over their opposition by taking something used in other sports and adapting it to the specifics of their sport. For example, strength conditioning training methods that have long been part of a weight lifters training program were adopted in other events, such as sprinting, to improve power and performance.

With the expansion of the internet, and more recently social networking, athletes, coaches and trainers are no longer isolated within their own sports. Previously, unless a coach went and observed in person training methods from other sports, or talked with coaches, influences on fitness and training came mainly from within their sport. Now, information on training techniques, fitness programs and almost all other areas of preparation of athletes can be found on the internet from almost any sport. This freedom of information has been significant in advances and innovation from one sport to another.

Not only this, but social networking has increased this even further. Now, coaches from all over the world are able to talk with each other and discuss training methods in their sports, putting top professionals in contact with each other to exchange ideas and create long term associations. This will increase the significance and the rate of innovations within sports. Smart phone technology is now adding a further dimension to this exchange of ideas between sports, bringing innovation development much closer to the point of implementation, even allowing the discussions and developments to occur within the training or competitive environment.

Negative Impacts of Computers

There are strong arguments against the increased use and influence of computers in sport and training, particularly in relation to the Olympics. The main principal of the Olympics is based on the abilities of mankind and celebrating the very peak of those abilities. However, many argue that the more technology is involved this principal is diminished as performances could be argued as less down to the athlete and increasingly down to computers and technology.

However, perhaps the strongest argument against the computers is that they could actually have a regressive effect on the development of certain sports. The more influential computers become in training and developing elite athletes, the more essential they become. Those who do not have this technology are placed at a significant disadvantage in their development. While some technological developments decrease costs, in most cases new computerised equipment increases the cost and inevitably reduces access to it.

This can significantly reduce the development of a sport at all levels. In countries where funding for a particular sport is relatively lower, those athletes will be further disadvantaged, potentially restricting the expansion and even restricting further the number of countries able to compete in a sport. This, in turn, has an indirect impact on participation at grass roots levels, as the inspiration to young, aspiring athletes in those nations diminishes.

Direct negative effects on grass roots participation can also be seen with further advances in computer technology. Computers and technologies used by elite athletes are mostly not available to grass roots participants, and the more integral these technologies are to a sport the more removed the elite sport is to what the grass roots are able to participate in, potentially damaging to participation levels. For example, Olympic track cycling is now quite different to the cycling available to most people, so most people are not able to sample what the sport is actually like and reducing association between the elite and grass roots sports. In contrast, the basic principles and rules of football are easily replicated by anyone, anywhere, maintaining a high relationship between participants at both ends of the scale.

It is commonly agreed that increased participation in terms of numbers, countries and communities is key to the development of all sports, and any negative effects of computers on this needs to be monitored and managed accordingly.


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder

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