Can sports science keep elite athletes healthy and prevent injuries?

Could football players wearing heart rate monitors and accelerometers, drinking personalized shakes and smoothies, and obsessively tracking their sleep and hydration actually keep them injury free and playing their best? Chip Kelly thinks it can.

The difference between wins and losses and teams making the playoffs versus watching them from home seems to get smaller every NFLFootball on field season. Key injuries can certainly make that difference. It isn’t always a star’s season-ending injury, like Peyton Manning’s neck surgery or Tom Brady’s ACL tear. Nagging calf, hamstring, or hip flexor strains that keep running backs or wide receivers on the sidelines can be just as detrimental.

While Kelly’s innovative up-tempo, no huddle offense attracts fan and media attention, his use of technology and sports medicine might be his true innovation.

Also read:
Are Thursday NFL games harmful to the players?
Can a happier, healthier football team win in the NFL?

Heart rate monitors, accelerometers and much more

The Eagles coaches and players mostly refuse to discuss their health tracking and physical recovery efforts. According to reports from Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB, Chris B. Brown of Grantland and others, some of the ways Kelly and his team have incorporated sports science in just his first year suggests a shift in how teams might try to keep players healthy and performing their best.

• Eagles players wear Catapult monitors that measure agility and acceleration. These monitors allow coaches to determine exactly when performance starts to decline.
• They wear Polar heart rate monitors that create post-workout recovery reports to tell coaches when athletes are physically ready to handle more training.
• They use an Omegawave system that captures data on fatigue, stress and aerobic capacity.
• The coaches reportedly use all of the data from these monitors to selectively rest individual players when the numbers suggest it is necessary.
• Unlike most NFL teams which only perform walk-throughs the day before games, the Eagles run full-speed practices. Kelly started using full practices before games based on recommendations from trainers of Olympic athletes. They believe that athletes need to physically exert themselves before competition.

Kelly’s Eagles are almost obsessive when it comes to traditional methods of recovery as well.

• Athletic trainers give players water from individually-marked bottles and have players record their urine output after practices. They then track – and publicly rank – each player’s hydration status.
• The team creates personalized performance smoothies every day for each player.
• Players undergo daily massage therapy and perform regular core strengthening.
• The players even wear sleep monitors so that coaches can correct poor performance due to lack of sleep.

The team’s “sports science coordinator”

All of these changes coincide with Kelly hiring the NFL’s first “sports science coordinator,” Shaun Huls. Huls came to the Eagles after serving as the head strength and conditioning coach for Navy Special Warfare, where he coordinated the injury prevention programs for the Navy SEAL Teams.

On Kelly’s arrival, the Eagles invested over $1 million on technology. While this amount of money on accelerometers and heart rate monitors might seem excessive, it pales in comparison to the $133 million teams pay their players each season. Why wouldn’t an NFL team spend money to try to keep its players on the field?

Also read:
The ACL epidemic in NFL training camps
When is an athlete ready for sports after ACL surgery?

Has this approach been successful?

Kelly has only been at the helm for one season, but his results have been encouraging so far. The Eagles finished 4-12 the season before Football wide receiver making a catchhe arrived. Last season, they went 10-6 and won the NFC East. The team’s health likely played a large role in this success.

According to Football Outsiders, Philadelphia was the second least-injured team last season, based on Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) to injuries. They were 18th in the league the previous year. Likewise, according to The Philadelphia Daily News, the Eagles had 14 players who started every regular season game, more than any other team.

Can technology and sports science prevent injuries?

In a collision sport like football, luck obviously plays a role in injuries. No amount of science will prevent every ankle fracture or ACL tear. If these efforts can prevent some muscle or tendon injuries, though, it could be extremely helpful.

“We don’t do that just for the sake of doing it,” Kelly told reporters last October. “We do that because we think there’s a benefit to it. Obviously, the big issues you look at are the soft tissue injures, because those are preventable.”

Can technology and sports science improve performance?

Sports science ultimately might not just keep players healthy, but it could improve their performance. It might be hard to see advantages within any single game. Theoretically better health and performance would manifest toward the end of the season when other teams are wearing down. The Eagles won seven of their last eight regular season games.

Also read:
‘Moneyball’ for team doctors?
The fine line between healing and cheating

The future for professional teams – and youth sports?

Obviously youth and high school football teams can’t hire Navy SEAL trainers and spend millions of dollars on health trackers. However, they can incorporate the same attention to players’ hydration, nutrition, and sleep.

It remains to be seen if this program works year after year, but I suspect other teams will quickly adopt similar programs. Kelly’s innovative use of sports science could very well become the standard in professional sports in coming years.

Do you feel like this use of health data and attention to hydration and nutrition can help athletes avoid injuries? Could it help elite athletes, or even high school and youth athletes, perform better? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the September 3, 2014 issue of The Post and Courier.