Digital technology and coaching: How data analytics is stepping up our game

By Neal Henderson

Coaches spend countless hours analyzing the speed, power, pacing and biometrics of their athletes to figure out how to best guide their performance. I train athletes in professional track cycling, a sport where milliseconds can make a difference, so I can affirm that every bit of useful data helps.

I’ve been working with endurance athletes for more than 20 years — well before we were all carrying smartphones in our pockets — so I’ve seen a massive shift in coaching as a result of digital technology, mobile and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, cloud computing and data analytics. As technology evolves, cycling coaches have a growing number of tools at their disposal, but they still face numerous challenges. Simply collecting data isn’t enough; we need fast analytics tools that can translate it into real-time insights coaches can apply during the race.

In the past, USA Cycling collected various separate streams of data but needed a way to rapidly synthesize it and deliver faster insights to coaches and our athletes. In September 2015, we started working with IBM to see how technology could transform our work and empower us to reach the next level in USA Cycling’s women’s team pursuit.

The data: What is it and where does it come from?

Women’s team pursuit is a track cycling event in which four women ride a distance of 4,000 meters in a velodrome. Having detailed data on each rider based on her individual physiology enables coaches to strategize optimal rider exchanges during the race.

USA Cycling women's team pursuit

First, let’s talk about the data that’s being collected. In track cycling, we look at several streams of data. Through mobile and IoT sensors, we gather information on the athletes themselves and their performance. Bicycles are fitted with power meters that collect power output, speed and cadence, and the riders are equipped with wearable devices that collect biometrics such as heart rate and muscle oxygen levels.

All the sensors and devices in use by riders and coaches are mobile, so the team can take this technology anywhere they go.

Analytics: Crunching the numbers

What do you do with all that information? In the past, this is where we met our challenge as coaches.

Traditionally, bringing the data together was a time-consuming, arduous process. We didn’t have an easy way to sync and analyze the information, so there could be days of delay in providing rider feedback after a practice or race.

In the solution designed by IBM jStart, data collected from the mobile and wearable sensors is transmitted to the IBM Cloud, where it is stored and analyzed. Within seconds, it’s returned to the coaches’ mobile devices in a visual dashboard. Technical components include a customized Watson IoT platform on IBM Bluemix and IBM Analytics for Apache Spark.

Coaches carry smartphones that act as the data gateway, where the data collected from bikes and riders syncs to the cloud. We use an iPad to see the analytics dashboard.

Analytics dashboard showing cyclists' data

The results: What can we learn to improve athletic performance?

The solution we’re working with today is possible because of the latest developments in mobile sensor technology, cloud and data analytics. While it is still in its infancy, the new platform is already providing impressive results.

Now, as the athletes ride, their data is being transmitted to the cloud in real time and getting processed and delivered back to the coaches. We can also show athletes an analysis of their data right after they perform, instead of using video replays days later. The analysis gives us insights on things such as linked power wattage, lap timing, muscle oxygenation and intensity analytics for individual riders.

All of this helps us strategize optimal moves during a race thanks to real-time insights, and we are already seeing positive outcomes. USA Cycling took home gold for the women’s team pursuit at the World Championships in London earlier this year — Team USA’s first World Championship title in the event. As we prepare for Rio this summer, we’re continuing to leverage the power of mobile and the cloud to step up our game.

Digital technology and data analytics will undoubtedly continue to offer coaches and athletes unprecedented opportunities for competitive performance. Who knows? Maybe in the future, cognitive computers will hep us predict rider metrics and get one more step ahead of the competition. Be sure to stay tuned!

In the meantime, read more about the USA Cycling and Watson IoT story on the Internet of Things Blog.

Written By

Neal Henderson

Owner at APEX Coaching & Consulting, LLC

Neal Henderson began coaching endurance sport athletes in the early 1990s. He has helped numerous athletes achieve first-time finishes, and has coached several national champions, multiple world champions, and several Olympians. Neal raced triathlon professionally from 2000–2003,…