When Michael Jordan took his first sip of Gatorade on TV, it marked the beginning of a new era in how consumers related to professional athletes. People weren’t buying the sports drink because they thought it tasted good, but because they wanted to “Be Like Mike.”
Nowadays, fitness experts are working with entrepreneurs to democratize the technology pros use to help them live, train, and perform better. Connected in-home cycling machines, for example, mimic how top cyclists train for the Tour de France. Meanwhile, wearable fitness monitors gather and analyze data to optimize sleep and movement patterns.
The essence of going pro is about harnessing the competitive instinct and desire for a healthier, higher-performance lifestyle. Connected home gym equipment, personalized training apps, and smart textiles are among the innovative technologies helping the average consumer feel and perform more like a pro athlete.
Training like an Olympic athlete
Olympic training represents the gold standard in fitness and peak performance. Trainers often work hand-in-hand with big companies, and even governments, to bring the most cutting-edge strategies and technologies to their work with athletes. They will leave no stone unturned to shave just a few milliseconds off a sprint time or a bicycle ride.
“At the Rio Olympics, we were working with lots of technology companies to develop solutions for top athletes of Team USA,” explains Mounir Zok, former head of technology and innovation for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Zok is now the CEO of N3XT Sports, a global consulting firm focused on the confluence of athletics, technology, and innovation. These days, his focus is on bringing training methods and technologies from the U.S. Olympic team to the general public.
“A lot of the technology we used at the Olympics was done with the idea of democratizing access and know-how generated through this technology for the average person,” he says.
Olympic cycling is one area where technology transfer into home fitness routines is already taking place. Because cycling involves so much equipment, the sport naturally lends itself to using various sensors and devices to monitor the performance of both equipment and athlete.
While the popular in-home cycling system Peloton is more recognizable, the new gamified in-home cycling system Zwift is more emblematic of Olympic training being democratized. Instead of targeting casual consumers like Peloton, Zwift gamifies Olympic-level cycling training. The difference is that Zwift is a pure technology platform that users attach to their bikes. The Zwift app then tracks progress, conducts post-training analysis, and provides recommendations for future workouts.
Making every human a connected athlete
Smart equipment embedded in the workout space is enabling a connected training experience. The connected athlete is powered by wearable devices, like Fitbit and Whoop, that monitor workout performance, vital signs, and sleep patterns.
“The easiest way to talk about the evolution of fitness and technology is through two specific lenses,” says Zok. “One is the connected space, and the other is the connected athlete or human.”
But connected devices and software needn’t be overly complex, says Karl Etzel, vice president of the performance lab at Exos, one of the world’s biggest physical performance companies. “It’s important to keep in mind that science and technology are available to pros for quite some time before it becomes consumable to the average person,” he says. “If you tell someone to strap on a heart rate monitor and calculate their lactate thresholds, their eyes are going to glaze over. So you have to start simpler.”
A lot of fitness wearables end up sitting on a shelf or in a drawer because consumers don’t feel like the data they generate is actionable or leads to markedly better performance outcomes. The next generation of connected devices and equipment will likely be tailored to track metrics most relevant to the average person, like gauging sleep quality or recommending workouts that won’t result in stress and strain.
As wearables become more prevalent in the professional sphere, they will inevitably gain more traction among consumers. “Some smart textiles have a technology that allows you to not only measure performance but to sometimes also deliver pharmaceutical products via nano-needles embedded in a wristband, for example,” Zok says.
British scientists have, for example, already developed a smart fabric called Xeflex, using fiber-optic material that turns clothing into sensors. The high tech fabric is currently being used by pro athletes to collect training feedback without the encumbrance of bulky sensors. Moreover, fashion and sportswear brands are mulling ways to potentially bring Xeflex to the consumer market.
Pro training in the connected workout space
The connected human is just one part of the prosumer fitness equation. Technology is also turning the home gym into a professional training studio.
Connected home workout equipment isn’t anything new. But innovations such as virtual trainers connected directly to the workout space, are changing the way consumers interact with their in-home gyms. Whether it’s a connected human or a virtual AI system, the next generation of trainers will access and analyze real-time data from equipment to optimize performance and wellness.
“We can now give someone a professional training program in digital format on their phone,” says Hans Muench, a global fitness consultant. “A personal trainer no longer needs to be in front of you, they can do it via an app. And with connected equipment and devices, the trainer can see performance and vital sign data.”
Muench, a retired professional tennis player, spent his career working alongside professional athletes and advising gyms and performance centers throughout Europe and the Americas. He predicts that connected in-home equipment will merge with virtual trainers and programs to enhance results.
“Then you have motion-sensing equipment that can detect whether or not you’re doing a particular exercise with the proper form,” he says. “There’s even the possibility of microchip implants that could provide even more data to a virtual trainer.”
It’s a part of the trend in professional fitness and technology that Meunch calls the “glass person,” in which an athlete’s entire body system and functioning can be viewed and analyzed. The concept that’s been used by professional athletes for decades, most notably in the training of German and Eastern European Olympic athletes.
“People’s vitals are going to become even more transparent,” Meunch says. “And virtual coaches will work with connected equipment to help people reach that next level of fitness and performance faster.”
Digital fitness platform VirtuaGym exemplifies this next iteration of connected coaching, collecting data from fully connected gym environments to provide personalized training and nutrition recommendations for individuals.
“By aggregating data points on things like how your last workout went, the quality of your sleep, and how you’re currently feeling virtual trainers and apps can provide a super tailored workout experience every time,” says Hugo Braam, the founder and CEO of VirtuaGym.
Braam even predicts that the same connectivity-based analytics will have a big impact on traditional, membership-based gym environments. “You’ll tap or scan yourself into a gym and have everything automatically tracked and analyzed through things like camera recognition and connected equipment,” he says. “And based on that data, an app or virtual trainer will give you an optimized workout plan for the next time you visit.”
The connected fitness experience for consumers is starting to mirror the data-driven personalization that many professionals utilize on a day-to-day basis. Artificial intelligence may push the envelope. The NFL, for instance, uses machine learning software to analyze data provided from shoulder pad sensors that measure things like speed and acceleration both in-game and in practice.
Pro science behind sleep and recovery
It's not just workouts that professional methods and technologies are going to impact. One underappreciated, yet critical, aspect to living a high-performance lifestyle is sleep and recovery. “One of the newest areas within connected fitness is sleep,” says Zok from N3XT Sports. “You already have devices like wristbands that monitor and track your sleep, and I think it’s one of the new areas coming to consumers.”
The overall fitness tracking device market is forecast to grow at an estimated rate of 20.1 percent per year through 2025, with companies investing increasing amounts into bringing advanced features like sleep monitoring to the market. Samsung’s new Galaxy Fit2, for example, tracks and analyzes total sleep time and REM cycles to provide users with a sleep score reflecting the effectiveness of the user’s rest.
From sleep monitoring and optimization to connected cryogenic chambers, athletes at the professional level are taking rest and recovery more seriously than ever. As Muench points out, there’s a huge financial incentive for professional teams and clubs to get their players back out on the field as quickly as possible.
“The recovery speed of a professional athlete is real-time and money for a team,” Muench says. “Especially when you have people making ten or twenty million dollars a year. Owners want to make sure players are rested and ready every game to see a return on their investment.”
A recent study conducted by the Associated Press, for example, found that NFL teams lost more than $500 million in 2019 due to wages paid to players sidelined by injury. It’s a cost that team owners would surely like to lower in the coming years.
Similar principles apply in business environments where, for instance, a well-rested workforce is more productive. That explains why more companies are investing in rest and recovery technology for their corporate wellness programs. While platforms such as VirtuaGym help companies improve the sleep and wellness of employees, other advanced technology being used by the pros might soon be implemented in a corporate setting.
“Ice chambers and cryotherapy for recovery are making their way down directly from the pros to people like executives and high-performance professionals,” Muench says. “I’m seeing martial arts studios, boxing gyms and other fitness centers geared towards the general public making significant investments in recovery as part of their future business models.”
Zok adds that sweat analysis tech to aid recovery — while still in the experimental phase — will become more prevalent in the consumer market. Smart wearable sensors and patches can detect and analyze the chemical composition of an athlete’s sweat and determine what nutrients should be taken for optimal recovery.
Lululemon is already partnering with exercise tracking app Strava for its Sweatlife Challenge — which is encouraging fitness activities during COVID-19 isolation. Another connected device that is resonating with consumers is Lululemon’s Mirror platform. The smart mirror turns an empty room into a workout space, simultaneously monitoring and analyzing user data throughout a training session or workout routine.
“Sweat analysis for recovery is an area that nobody has been quite able to figure out, but is quite promising,” Zok says. “Technology is emerging to analyze sweat to determine things like stress, hydration, and overall levels of well-being.”
Smart patches that change color based on the composition of an athlete’s sweat are already making their way onto the consumer market, for example. Gatorade’s GX Sweat Patch, developed in conjunction with Epicore Biosystems, is indicative of this trend.
The GX patch turns various colors during and after a workout indicating the need for certain vitamins or supplements, and can even tell if an athlete is potentially overworked. Gatorade’s patch integrates with its GX app, which provides personalized fueling and recovery recommendations based on the data it collects.
“A personal trainer no longer needs to be in front of you, they can do it via an app." — Hans Muench, global fitness expert
Gaining a psychological edge with tech
Athletes use much more than a sports psychiatrist to help get them “in the zone” regularly. What sets some of the top athletes apart from the pack — whether it’s Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps — is often the mental edge and focus they bring to every game or event.
Halo Neuroscience is a company at the forefront of mental performance optimization. The company’s main product is a muscle-stimulating headset that improves neuroplasticity and speeds up the learning process. Professional Crossfit athletes use Halo to learn new motions and exercises faster, decreasing the time it takes for mastering a specific exercise.
“Halo is a company that works with several US Olympic athletes,” Zok says. “It’s essentially a headphone with brain stimulators that improves motor cortex functioning and even allows you to learn quicker.”
Halo’s consumer applications include exercise and fitness, but that’s just part of what it offers. Beyond fitness performance, chefs can learn how to prepare new dishes in less time and musicians can master new pieces and techniques faster. This same technology can potentially be applied to training people for vocations like welding and equipment repair, decreasing the time and cost for employee training.
Learning new skills is just one aspect of mental performance. Staying engaged and on-target with workout regimens is a huge challenge for the average person. VersaGym’s Braam predicts that gamification of exercise combined with social technology will prevent users from skipping their workout routines.
“One of the most successful fitness apps in my opinion was the ‘Pokemon Go!’ game,” Braam observes. “It got millions of people outdoors and moving around that would otherwise probably be sitting at home. And that’s where I think the future of fitness is headed. Digitally connected workouts will be social, interactive, and feel more like a game.”
Social gamification is also a core value proposition of the Zwift cycling platform. Zwift users can choose to workout in a video-game style massive multiplayer online experience, training, and competing with other users in challenging, immersive environments like cycling up a volcano.
From plumbers to paralegals, just about everyone wants to show up every day ready to put in a top-notch performance. That desire is motivating companies to develop products based on what top Olympic and professional athletes use. But instead of helping people win a championship or gold medal, it’s all about living healthier and performing better on the job.
Professional athletes inspire everyone to strive for excellence. While most people will never be able to dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan or stroke a backhand like Maria Sharapova, technology promises to help everyone achieve their personal best.
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