Research using wearable devices aims to bridge gap between collection and possible applications of data for student-athletes and beyond

In their pursuit of peak athletic performance, athletes often unwittingly push themselves to the point of injury. What if this could be prevented?

Using data made popular by wearable devices like FitBits and Apple Watches, biomedical engineering students from Case Western Reserve University’s Simulation and Applied Informatics Lab (SAIL) have partnered with the CWRU rowing team to help answer this question.

Under the lead of second-year PhD student Dhruv Seshadri, the SAIL researchers are tracking and monitoring the rowers’ sweat rates, stress levels, heart rates, workout loads, acute-to-chronic workload ratios and more before, during, and after practices over a four-week period. Their goal? To develop predictive analytics that change how athletes approach training altogether.

“What if the data digital-health technology provides could be used to safely guide athletes to reach their sweet spots for peak performance?” asked Samantha Magliato, a senior on the rowing team and member of Seshadri’s lab. “What if the data could be used to predict injuries like soft tissue tears?”

Photo of the VivaLNK Vital Scout sensors used in the studyFor this study, 22 varsity rowers are wearing VivaLNK Vital Scout sensors, provided by the Silicon Valley-based startup, to measure their bodies’ responses to physiological impacts. Seshadri then monitors the data these sensors generate in real-time. Five of the rowers are also wearing the Humon Hex, a device that measures muscle oxygenation levels and anaerobic thresholds, to provide additional depth for the data.

With structured training regimens and regular 6 a.m. practices, the rowing team was a logical fit for the study’s needs.

“Rowers love analytics,” explained Magliato, noting how coaches Aaron Marcovy and Rachel Stanley already use blood-lactate testing to stratify the team into training groups. “Our findings could be applicable to the team’s training as early as this season.”

“By developing mathematical models that leverage the acquired biomechanical and physiological data sets, we aim to shape athletic training protocols that trainers and coaches across sports can employ,” Seshadri explained, pointing to stress as a metric that, like pain, is difficult to quantify yet well known to impede health. The ultimate goal is to translate this study’s findings to more dynamic, contact sports, as well as to youth and elite sports, enabling the data to be catered to individual athletes in a safe and efficient way.

Seshadri and Magliato are working closely under the guidance of Professor Colin Drummond, who encouraged the pair to pursue this translational focus. Drummond spent 20 years working in industry and understands the forces that allowed for the research void his students are addressing.

“Industry hype surrounding wearable devices led tech companies to leap over clinical testing in blind faith as they rushed to get their products to market,” he said. “Companies are now looking to circle back to that middle phase as they seek to frame possible clinical uses.”

The study is also benefiting from the guidance of James Voos, associate professor and chair of the Department of Orthopedics at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, who has conducted similar research. As chief physician for the Cleveland Browns, Voos has led a two-year study with the UH Sports Medicine Institute to evaluate the relationship of human performance to soft-tissue injury among the elite-level athletes.

“Without Dr. Voos’ support, none of this would be possible,” said Seshadri. The two have collaborated with Drummond on a paper about wearables for sports previously, which Seshadri presented as an oral talk at an international conference in 2016.

Looking ahead

While studies like that with the rowing team are focused on presumably healthy individuals, the findings could have applications far beyond the realm of athletics. Members of the research team are already involved in tangential studies assessing how wearable technology could help less healthy individuals in the context of everything from cardiac conditions to high-risk pregnancies, neonatal care and even end-of-life management.

“Whatever the results of our [rowing] study, the paper that disseminates will have an impact on where this type of research goes,” said Seshadri. “The findings of such studies with wearable devices are incredibly clinically relevant.”

Regardless of focus, the need for a collaborative approach remains a constant in an industry where concerns regarding data accuracy and consumer privacy continue to grow.

“Health care and engineering experts must work together,” said Drummond, pointing to the value of Case Western Reserve’s interdisciplinary approach. “A big sea change is coming for the wearables industry.”