Imagine learning exactly how your muscles fire as you run. Whether one side activates more than the other — telling you the likelihood of future injuries, where they might occur and what kind. Or, think about objectively learning your strengths and weaknesses in terms of acceleration, deceleration, balance and reaction time, as well as precise muscle imbalances, and how to address them.
These performance stats form the root of a growing sports science field, particularly at the NY Sports Science Lab in Staten Island, NY. I recently visited the lab for a “global assessment,” a three-plus-hour process that includes nearly 10 different tests. These tests range from running with 3D motion-tracking sensors to brain games to jump force readings and balance checks.
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Sports Science: Getting to the Core of the Issues
“Tests range from running with 3D motion-tracking sensors to brain games to jump force readings and balance checks.”
You may have seen ESPN’s Sports Science segments, where they test football players’ reaction times, the velocity and speed of baseball players’ swings, and basketball players’ vertical jump height. That’s basically what goes down at the NY Sports Science Lab. There, they have countless devices analyze how your body moves during a workout and how to make those movements more efficient. The exception is that you don’t need a million-dollar contract to reap the benefits of the science-backed knowledge.
As a runner, I’ve suffered plenty of injuries, especially while training for my first marathon last fall. I’ve had a few bouts of IT band syndrome and tendinitis in my left hip. That’s not to mention the typical aches and pains lots of endurance athletes experience. According to Michael Greene, NY Sport Science Lab’s head performance enhancement specialist, the center’s main goal is not only to help athletes reach the top of their game, but also to address any underlying physical issues before they even turn into injuries. (Note to self: Stop in before you start training.)
Often times, Greene says, they can spot injuries just by checking out an athlete’s feet and gait. “First and foremost, if there’s a structural issue and it’s heavily affecting form throughout exercise, we work to get the knees, hips and core properly aligned,” Greene says. “Typically, that involves exercises that strengthen the feet and ankle, and get that foot in the ideal position.”
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The Assessment: Laps, Jumps, Drills, Oh My!
My day of movement analysis started at an indoor track, where the lab’s team strapped and taped mini sensors to my arms, legs, glutes and my head. (Check the pic above for just how cool I looked.) These sensors are part of the 3D tests, where they take a close look at muscle activation during your specific sport. In my case, the sensors measured how my muscles fired as I started, maintained and ended a sprint, and while making turns around the track.
The set-up took about an hour, which according to the lab folks, was pretty quick. They’ve previously tested athletes where the sensors fly off due to the sheer force of their movements and crazy muscle capacity. So even if I wasn’t going to impress the team with my strength and agility, at least I had stable sensors going for me.
After running back and forth a few times on the track and doing two full laps, I performed a few overhead squats, pistol squats and a shoulder mobility test to further check my range of motion.
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“We work to get the knees, hips and core properly aligned.”
Next up, we headed back to the lab for a body composition screening to measure my lean muscle mass and body fat percentage via bioelectrical impedance. (AKA a machine that sends electrical impulses through the body to see how quickly they return.) Then, I worked up a sweat with a video game-like activity that required running in different directions and stop-and-go drills — all to evaluate my acceleration, deceleration and lateral movements. I also worked through ground force testing, which involved me jumping on a block with zero give, solidifying the fact that all five-foot-none of me has zero ups.
The machine the team got most excited about was the functional isokinetic muscle test — a sort of leg curl device that compared the strength and power of my right and left legs in both my quads and hamstrings. (More on that assessment below.)
We wrapped up the day with a few brain tests that analyzed my hand-eye coordination, depth perception, multi-object tracking, target capture and more, plus a rhythm test. Greene mentioned the hand-eye coordination drills work especially well for boxers, while the rhythm device (which essentially involves clapping to a beat) has helped with social improvements in autistic children.
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The Results: Making Sense of Muscle Imbalances
After all that tracking, the scientists regrouped to pour over the data. They found one glaring problem with my mechanics: I’m stronger on my right side compared to my left. And that uneven distribution — as Greene guessed — starts at my feet. Turns out, I pronate more on my left foot, causing my arch to flatten and putting more pressure on my knees and hips. (Hello, IT band aches and hip pain.)
“We’d do simple exercises to build that mind-muscle connection and create force development on both sides.”
As for my bodyweight exercises, I did have a fairly even overhead squat, in terms of my knee and hip flexion. But I could certainly feel the difference between the two sides in the pistol squat and the sensors verified it. It showed less bend in my left knee and diminished flexibility in my left ankle. I now also know that ankle mobility is something I learned I need to work on, in general.
The 3D running sensors also confirmed my left foot pronation, which causes more hip rotation and thus more impact on that side. More bad news: I didn’t show optimal muscle activation during the turns on the track in my glutes, hamstrings and calves — all needed for deceleration. (Who doesn’t like slowing down on a run? Me, apparently.) My homework was to work on exercises that target my posterior chain. So I’ll be doing deadlifts and clamshells and aiming to increase strength in my hip muscles, especially on my left side. (I did kind of rock the balance test though — score! I chalk that up to my cheerleading days.)
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What’s Next: Building Mind-Muscle Connection
When chatting with Anthony Flask, CSCS, the lab’s head strength and conditioning coach, he said the best workout Rx for someone like me — a runner with imbalances in her lower half — would include plyometric exercises that focus on my weaker side. “We’d do simple exercises to build that mind-muscle connection and create force development on both sides,” he explains. “It’s a matter of neuromuscular reeducation.” And another reason the lab takes the psychological side of sports so seriously.
The most important lesson I learned: Muscle imbalances can cause a slew of problems, particularly in amateur runners. So if you want to find better balance in your own body, consider visiting a sports science lab to look at your entire kinetic chain. You’ll find out the disruptions in movement and get concrete feedback on how to handle it. (The machines can better track your progress.) If you’re like me and feel like you’re often running toward a new injury — or even if you just want to break through a plateau or earn a new PR — it’s certainly worth a visit.
The NY Sports Science Lab, located in Staten Island, offers free tours of their facility, plus one complimentary test. Full assessments start at $550. Check out their site for more details.