by Carl Valle

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The third part of this series reviews the growing sensor market and how to use the data from equipment such Tendo, Gymaware, and even new wearables such as the up and coming Push device and Angel Sensor. To wrap things up, an understanding of how all the data feeds into dashboards and manual decision-making is important, since one has to think about billing clients or budgeting for teams.

When creating a monitoring system, I proposed the simple ABC option in the last blog, but one of the most important factors is creating a workflow of what is done and a hierarchy of what is valuable. A simple question such as what is done daily, weekly, and monthly for data collection and which data is most valuable. With many data sets being unique, it’s important to have some redundancy and auditing of the data. Also we need to understand what we are paying for when looking at data providers more than ever now, since some cloud tools are now filtering our data and using “proprietary” algorithms that are unproven in the research. Validity is a must if we are to make serious decisions about the scores we get from any device or service, and evidence that the scoring is accurate and precise is necessary more than ever. Finally the data must be fluid in the daily workflow to actually be used in the real world, since most sport science approaches don’t translate into team coaches workflow. It’s easier to have data from physiological monitoring resonate with performance coaches, but when the data is shown on a chart to team coaches, very few make the adjustments necessary, since most don’t understand basic work and rest training theory to begin with.

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Measuring the training stress, while not comprehensive, is still relevant today. One of the most frustrating comments I see is the discussion about life stress such as breakups, school, and other outside variables. As coaches, we are aware that life places plenty of stresses on athletes that will impact their recovery, readiness to train and performance, but we are at least in control of the training load portion of the total stress. When we know the training stress and we know the physiological response systemically, we then can start making conclusions of the training better provided we have a general system of training. In teams everyone is talking about individual responses to training, but practicing as a team is a necessary “evil” and rotating out a player because of fatigue of one if a play requires their participation makes the individualism unlikely to occur. Usually the individualization comes from the weight training, regeneration options, or general conditioning, making precision far more important there, as those are the areas likely to be modified. The approach of adjusting strength training and other variables is important, but if the primary practice is not affected, the results are going to be limited and coaches will be painted into a corner. When team coaches make adjustments based on training load such as some progressive soccer clubs, then the advantage of knowing the fatigue levels can really be applied.

Slicing Training Load For Granularity

I have been using ithlete for three years now and several proponents of other systems have questioned three areas of it in training. One being how valuable heart rate variability (HRV) is for addressing fatigue, specifically CNS. Another question was the validity of 60 second standing assessments versus the longer supine assessment for accuracy. Finally, how does one actually make decisions after the data is collected?

My experience always starts with open source options for the reason of getting the raw data before I move to consumer or SaaS style products. Earlier I used an open source product Kubios and experimented on tempo running with some of my athletes to create my own simple decision making flow chart. For years I wondered what value tempo running had with sprinters, since the volume of running and intervals were very uncommon in the literature. Most studies looked at continuous running and very few looked at the interaction between intensive neural training such as sprinting and lifting in conjunction with low intensity grass running that I was instructed to do by USATF. After using the data and converting into the scoring that ithlete used, both the raw and adjusted scores worked perfectly. I have used my own calculations but it didn’t provide me with different conclusions and using the open source option was not athlete friendly. The most obvious factor is athlete compliance and sustainability of longitudinal collection, and now the finger sensor increases the adoption. No matter how many features or backend analytic cloud tools exist, no data means failure to take off.

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Fatigue from Autonomic Nervous System data sources is a summary indicator that is important to me. I understand that HRV isn’t going to evaluate if a hamstring is ready to go and most coaches will agree with that. Sometimes injuries will create inflammation beyond what is tolerable to the body and change HRV scores, but it’s important to know that HRV is a summary data set, not a targeted area of the body or specific system of the body such as the CNS in isolation. That is fine, as plenty of other options in training can help observe the output of athletes in wattage to see the effect of body to explosive exercise, such as linear positional transducer tool like Gymware or a force plate. Many coaches have to hold back athletes that tend to be too aggressive all the time and prescribe sub maximal loads or lower the volumes to reduce overtraining. The most difficult area to deal with is lazy athletes, who don’t want to train or practice, and are stubborn as mules with working out. Trying to evaluate readiness to train is not pointless, but when readiness to train is more willingness to train hard, we have bigger fish to fry. The distribution of athletes will range from workaholics to the laziest sloths imaginable, but most will fit between the two and be working hard enough to get the job done. Coaches usually get into sport science because it’s interesting and they like working with athletes, very few athletes play professional sports because the are interested in how their bodies react to training and are competing to get access to a trainer! I view HRV like a lifeline that has many elements into the data feed and artificially splitting the HRV into different indices is far from perfect and questionable. Most athletes don’t play because of low HRV scores, they play because of anatomic strain on their bodies such as sprains and strains and sometimes trauma.  We use physiological monitoring to ensure injury doesn’t come from pre fatigued muscles unable to reduce gravity overcoming joints and soft tissue, but we need to see that fundamental training variables must be observed or it will just be a horror movie that we are helpless in preventing and just sit there waiting for a bad ending. The best practice with HRV is to monitor day-to-day scores to see indications of overreaching and look at the rolling average to see about possible overtraining.  Since any daily assessment is usually done once, looking at the output of training is important to see the outcomes in games and meets. When teams are monitored, then deviation from the norms can show the need to adjust or customize the training to the individual, or show the individual needs support in handling life outside the gym or field.

I slice the training into field, gym, external regeneration modalities, and outside variables. With Olympic or individual sport, one coach is usually managing all the variables, making training more likely to be in harmony and effective. In team sport the head coach usually drives the majority of training on then pitch or court, with the gym being orchestrated by the strength coach. The medical staff or performance coach usually assists regeneration, but more collaboration exists here with outside consultants and sport scientists. Outside variables are sometimes the athlete freelancing with other training with a private coach, especially common in the United States with pro athletes having the right not to train at all without penalty. Most would agree that sleep and nutrition are major contributions to recovery as well, with life stress such as legal trouble and relationships being a possible stressor.  Knowing all the possible stressors can help anyone evaluating were unexpected results or HRV scores are causing the problems or improving the adaptations. For example, all stress is cumulative so even doing low intensity work every day may add up to residual fatigue later in the week if passive rest is not included. How does a coach look at explosive weights differently from practices that are sometimes intermitted sprinting and cutting? GPS helps estimate the volume, distance, and distribution of work, but good luck trying to interpret how the lifting is affecting athletes on game day aside from the practices. It can be estimated but each week will be a moving target and the same volume one week even if repeated precisely will be a different composition from interacting from earlier practices and competition. The easiest way is to stick with simple math and look at the relative output from training and testing and see how the practice volumes, training and regeneration supplementation, and outside life mixes and see what can be modified. Coaches usually let their areas be compromised to appease the coach, but doing this chronically will cause you to fail to do your job and the results in the long run will be on you. A simple solution is to decrease minutes and density, meaning take the athlete out early and substitute out more. Skipping every 3 reps in route running for receivers doing route work or similar is being experimented with some programs, but any modification that is “coaching friendly” suggested is better than hoping a coach can interpret parasympathetic charts and RMSSD tables. All of the athlete’s total resources should be split by volume, not just artificially segregating training into isolated energy systems.

Budgeting and Billing for Data

Subscriptions and hardware are two areas coaches are now deciding to invest into, since the days of clipboards and barbells are now becoming extinct. With rising costs, budgets may not be meeting those expenses and coaches have to make compromises and also think how the data is collected from a time perspective. Even teams that have huge budgets like Manchester United and the New York Yankees still have the same 24 hours a day like the rest of us, and budgeting and billing is a strategic decision with time as well.

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What am I paying for when I get HRV, blood testing, and devices that estimate power output? It’s obvious to see when one is buying a smart-shirt or heart rate strap because you can see a tangible device, but subscriptions are consumable products that are gone and are harder to appreciate. When I buy a third party service I want to know precisely what I am getting in order to bill or budget for it. Private facilities must forward the costs to the clients or decrease their margins, and coaches with teams must look at their annual budget and see the value over other expenses such as equipment costs. With the pie being usually the same size, more data and more equipment makes this a compromise with legacy approaches or forces the coach to show the value of the data to their superiors.  If the private facility can’t afford the data because clients are now seeing the value, the data, no matter how valuable, is not collected and used. Having a finite amount of money creates a more educated consumer, and the movie Moneyball is now making coaches think about Key Performance Indicators versus massive data dump and trying to find direction. I like a holistic approach that looks at all the factors and use experience to connect the dots, since Key Performance Indicators are limited data points like stars in the sky, that we as coaches and medical professionals must find constellations out of from interpretation. Not having a well rounded list of data and budgeting too much into one area will create cause and effect gaps, usually forcing coaches to put too much weight into one area because all of their golden eggs are one basket. ithlete allows me to get the most bang for my buck for HRV and studies recently and in the past support the measurement value and the method of acquisition.

I have used outside HRV products and found that they simply are overpriced, and the features are label dressing, meaning a list of frivolous metrics that nobody I have seen has ever shown to be making actionable choices from. Remember it’s not about the data one is collecting with one’s athletes that matters, it’s about what data can create a real world intervention.  Coaches need to pay for what they use and need, not ornamental and superfluous data that is overly redundant to the point of being excessive.

For the cost of two lattes per month, I can get an athlete’s HRV score, subjective indicators, and resting HR calculated and pushed through the cloud to my iPad or computer. Since HRV is only a part of the monitoring process I get the best bang for my buck and I can use the remaining money for other needs that help paint a complete picture, such as quarterly blood testing and equipment that will help me assess training load. Other data sets can be estimated from actual training and regardless of the score the interventions will be rest more, work harder, work differently, or count you blessings it’s working well.  Coaches need things to be faster, easier, simpler, and cheaper all being equal.