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Can biomechanics boost my athletic performance?

The question

Can biomechanical analysis make me a better (or less injury-prone) athlete?

The answer

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One of the key members of Canada's track and field team at last month's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi never set foot on the track.

Instead, biomechanist Dana Way deployed his tools - high-speed camera, motion capture software, video goggles - from the sidelines or from a bird's-eye perch in the stands, producing rapid analysis between rounds for coaches and athletes.

"Dana is a fundamental part of our team," Athletics Canada head coach Alex Gardiner says. "If you're not using a biomechanics and video review, you're at a huge disadvantage in Olympic-level competition, without question."

Technology that has long been used for research in university biomechanics labs has made the jump to elite sport, where systems to monitor the forces and motions of an athlete's body down to the millimetre are increasingly seen as essential tools for training and competition. And the same techniques are now being offered to recreational athletes, with the focus on preventing injuries rather than boosting performance.

In typical laboratory "motion-capture" systems, small reflective markers are affixed to the athlete's body at key points such as joints and extremities. Video cameras connected to a computer record the motion of these markers, and use the data to draw a stick-figure that duplicates the essential features of the athlete's motion.

While traditional systems used a single camera to capture motion in two dimensions, the latest systems use multiple cameras to create a three-dimensional model. Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox, for example, are using a 20-camera system to analyze the throwing motion of their pitchers.

At the University of Calgary's Running Injury Clinic, biomechanist Reed Ferber has been using an eight-camera system with 20 reflective markers to analyze the running gait of his patients and research subjects. But he's found that for the 3-D gait analysis systems he's started installing at sports clinics across the country, three specially designed cameras are sufficient.

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"We have compared the data from each of these systems against our eight-camera system and the data is valid and reliable," he says. "There is no difference in the output whatsoever."

Dr. Ferber's systems are now available in Calgary, Banff, Alta., and Victoria, with installation under way in Lethbridge, Alta., and further systems planned.

But capturing the gait in 3-D is just the first - and arguably the easiest - step in treating or preventing running injuries.

Next, Dr. Ferber compares the features of the runner's stride with the biomechanical database he's assembled over the past three years, containing tens of thousands of footfalls. The computer produces graphs showing how parameters such as hip rotation, knee angle and stride length compare with typical values, with the right and left legs analyzed separately so that asymmetries can be identified.

Of course, some variables are more important than others in causing injuries. Further statistical analysis assigns a relative importance to each variable and, finally, an overall "risk score" is generated, along with suggested exercises to address stride problems.

"After successful treatment, their risk score should improve," Dr. Ferber says - and that hypothesis has indeed been confirmed by his research.

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In addition to injury prevention, similar techniques can help boost your game. Mr. Way, who co-owns Effectus Athlete Development in Winnipeg, works with athletes in sports ranging from badminton and diving to archery and golf. (He has particular expertise, his website notes, in basketball free throw shooting mechanics, and his master's thesis was "Traditional Arctic Sports: A Biomechanical Analysis of the One Foot and Two Foot High Kick.")

But he doesn't spend much time in biomechanics labs these days, he says: "I prefer to do more practical, on-the-field work."

In New Delhi, for example, sticking reflective markers on the athletes during practice or competition wouldn't have been practical. Instead, Mr. Way was able to measure angles and velocities - for example, to adjust the final steps of high-jumpers between attempts or break down the elements of baton passes between members of the men's 4x100-metre relay team and pinpoint where fractions of a second were being lost - using Dartfish, a state-of-the-art video-analysis program that doesn't require markers.

Though the setting is different, Mr. Way's goals are exactly the same as Dr. Ferber's.

"If something is sloppy," he says, "we'll take a look, and figure out how to clean it up."

Get analyzed

Here's a list of clinics where the 3-D gait analysis designed by Reed Ferber is available. (A new clinic in Lethbridge is set to open soon):

Running Injury Clinic (Calgary):

Downtown Sports Clinics (Calgary):

Parkway Physiotherapy (Victoria):

Banff Sport Medicine (Banff):

Alex Hutchinson blogs about research on exercise at

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About the Author
Jockology columnist

Alex Hutchinson writes about the science of fitness and exercise. A former national-team distance runner and postdoctoral physicist, he is the author of Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. He is also a senior editor at Canadian Running magazine and a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics. More

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