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How sports science is now benefitting everyday athletes

March 27, 2024

Football stars and their movements are measured down to the smallest detail for injury prevention and biomechanical analysis. What used to be the sole domain of professional sports can benefit everyday athletes.

Two legs fitted with electrodes in a lab
Sports scientist Hauke Dewitz (right) collects data as he puts a young basketball player through his pacesImage: Jens Krepela/DW

A young basketball player is being put through his paces in a sports medicine lab. On command, he jumps and lands with one leg onto a force plate embedded in the floor.

"I need one more," Dr. Hauke Dewitz calls out to him.

So the same procedure again: taped with reflective beads, so-called markers, and electrodes that measure muscle activity, the 16-year-old jumps again. Pain in his right knee, which has been bothering him for months, has brought him to the lab. With the controlled movements completed, now comes the analysis by the sports orthopedist treating the athlete.

Based on the data, sports scientist Dewitz is looking for the causes of the inflammation of the patellar tendon. Why does the knee bend almost imperceptibly to one side? Do the muscles slow the body down properly? What forces are acting on the joints? Biomechanical analysis can reveal such clues. For more than two hours, the patient has had to call up his repertoire of movements: run, jump, change direction and perform squats. He has also had to demonstrate his sense of balance and strength.

Sports stars with everyday problems

Well-known professional athletes also come to the practice near Cologne. For professionals and their clubs, health is a million-dollar game – all options are exhausted when it comes to correcting physical ailments.

A shirtless mail performs on a treadmill while a sports scientist in a red shirt looks on
Highly sophisticated clinical analysis can point to long-term remedies for aches and painsImage: Jens Krepela/DW

"However, hardly any athletes have come to us for preventive care so far," Dewitz tells DW.

He believes that doing so could prevent some problems and injuries.

"Most of them come after an operation or with injuries that occur repeatedly, for example fiber tears in a particular thigh muscle."

His conclusion from years of experience is that top athletes are not usually plagued by exotic aches and pains but have the same problems as everyone else: aching tendons, muscles or joints that cannot withstand the strain.

"People always think that top athletes are so well-trained that you can hardly find any weaknesses in the analysis," Dewitz says.

However, in the sports of football and basketball in particular, there are sometimes fundamental weaknesses. For example, a lack of strength in key muscle groups, which means that the joints take the strain, Dewitz explains.

"I'm always amazed by that.

However, motion analysis in and of itself does not provide a cure.

The role of artificial intelligence in sports science

"It is a valuable decision-making aid," Professor Maren Witt, head of the biomechanics laboratory at Leipzig University tells DW.

The results provide doctors, physiotherapists, and patients with information on where the pain is coming from and how it can be remedied.

"We are currently experiencing how this technology, which was reserved for top athletes just a few years ago, is becoming accessible to many people," Witt says.

Whereas individual analyses used to take days, they can now be done in just a few hours.

Professor Maren Witt
Professor Maren Witt: 'This technology, which was reserved for top athletes just a few years ago, is becoming widely accessible.'Image: Swen Reichhold/Universität Leipzig/SUK

"In the future, artificial intelligence will also make sticking on marker points superfluous," the scientist predicts.

In addition to saving time, this could help people who go for analysis because of knee, hip or back problems but are reluctant to show themselves in swimwear.

In the coming years, Hauke Dewitz hopes to be able to measure athletes in a normal training environment, like on the soccer pitch or the basketball court, just as well as in the laboratory.

"That would be even more individual and therefore more sport-specific," Dewitz explains.

Targeted training

After two hours of analysis, Derwitz finds that there is indeed room for improvement for the young basketball player. While the two-meter-tall (6'6") youngster lands cleanly on his left leg, he doesn't do so well on his right. The leg rotates slightly, the strength values show high load peaks – factors that cause stress on the inflamed patellar tendon.

The sports scientist recommends that he tackle the problem with targeted training. This includes simple strength training for the thighs and buttocks, but also finer technique exercises for running and landing.

How effective and suitable for everyday use can such training be?

"In high-performance sport, we assume that it works," Professor Witt says, "even if it is difficult to scientifically attribute it to movement analysis alone, because many factors play a role in health and athletic performance."

At this point, Dewitz recounts a story of a national team player whose hamstring had been bothering her for years. A problem that saw a number of medical solutions fail. Analysis revealed the simple reason: one muscle was compensating for the weakness of another and was therefore overloaded. With targeted training, the problem disappeared into thin air.

"Any physiotherapist or sports scientist can do that," says Dewitz. "I don't need a football club worth millions behind me for that."

Knee problems – In Good Shape talks to an expert

This article was originally published in German. 

Jens Krepela
Jens Krepela Editor, reporter and author