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Science in Sport

U-M infielder Ako Thomas attempts a bunt during a June 3 game against the University of North Carolina. Photo: Michigan Athletics

By Alex Piazza

Ako Thomas felt a sharp pain shoot through his hand as he swung at an outside pitch.

The University of Michigan infielder ignored the discomfort and advanced to first base.

But Thomas’ hand soon began to swell, so he left the field.

A CT Scan later revealed a broken bone in his hand, and Thomas had surgery a couple days later. His season was in jeopardy.

A specialized batting glove, created
by U-M Professor Ellen Arruda,
helped infielder Ako Thomas
return to play without serious pain.

Enter Ellen Arruda. The Maria Comninou Collegiate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who is developing a football helmet to better protect athletes from concussion, created a specialized batting glove for Thomas so that he could return to play without serious pain.

Arruda and her U-M colleagues fashioned composite padding in the shape of a donut, which they sewed into Thomas’ batting glove. The glove helped reduce force and dissipate energy when Thomas’ bat made contact with a baseball. And the unique shape provided padding around Thomas’ surgery scar, without covering the incision, in order to reduce any discomfort.

“The glove really helps because it prevents the knob of the bat from digging into my hand, like it normally would,” said Thomas, who this season led the Big Ten Conference in batting average and on-base percentage. “It makes a huge difference, not only when I’m batting, but on defense, too. There were times this season when the ball took a bad hop and hit the padded area of my glove, and it didn’t even hurt.”

Thomas’ specialized glove is partly the result of a new U-M initiative that brings researchers, Michigan Athletics and industry partners together to optimize physical performance and health. Launched in 2016, the U-M Exercise & Sport Science Initiative (ESSI) draws on expertise from across campus to interface, prioritize and conduct sport and exercise-related research and innovation.

“Science and technology are creating a host of new opportunities that have potential to transform the world of exercise and sport,” said Arruda, who co-directs ESSI with U-M Professor Ron Zernicke.

Below are examples of new research projects, funded by ESSI, that aim to address the influence of sleep on athletic performance and better predict injuries among runners.

Time to perform

A student-athlete stays up late to study for a biology exam.

The next day at practice, she is a step slower and her reaction time is delayed.

This scenario is nothing new in the world of sports, as researchers have known for years that sleep influences athletic performance.

Today’s marketplace is saturated with devices that claim to measure sleep and its contribution to performance, but they are not entirely backed by science. A team of U-M researchers plans to change that.

Participants in the research study will visit the U-M Sleep and Chronophysiology
Lab to receive what’s considered the gold standard assessment of sleep
and circadian rhythm. Photo: Michigan Medicine/Kara Gavin

Led by Cathy Goldstein and Olivia Walch, researchers are developing software that would assess both sleep and circadian rhythms to help athletes achieve peak physical performance.

“Many systems seek to develop wearables and analysis platforms to enhance athletic performance by improving sleep, but they ignore the circadian clock and the important effect light has on the body,” said Goldstein, U-M assistant professor of neurology and a primary investigator on the project.

The central circadian rhythm is an important factor here because, as the body’s internal clock, it controls our sleep-wake cycle. Previous research indicates that not only sleep duration, but also the overlap between the time of competition and the biological schedule of athletes can modify outcomes.

Here is how the project would work:

  • Healthy volunteers will wear Apple watches to collect movement and heart rate data. Through the mobile app, participants will enter light exposure and take a test to measure alertness and vigilance.
  • Mathematical algorithms in the app will estimate sleep and the timing of the circadian rhythm based on movement, heart rate and light-dark information.
  • After two weeks, participants will visit the U-M Sleep and Chronophysiology Lab to receive what’s considered the gold standard assessment of sleep and circadian rhythm.
  • Researchers will compare the app’s mathematical prediction against the gold standard to ensure accuracy.
  • Using the final algorithms, researchers will pilot the mobile and software platform in U-M athletes to track their sleep and circadian rhythm, and then correlate this to performance metrics.
  • By assessing sleep and circadian contributions to physical performance with mathematical algorithms, the mobile app could estimate the time of peak physical performance and also recommend modifications to sleep duration and the timing of light-dark exposure.

“Athletes everywhere are looking for a competitive advantage, and this software could help them align their circadian rhythm appropriately with the time of competition to achieve peak performance,” said Walch, U-M research fellow in neurology who previously developed a mobile app that offers schedules of light and dark to travelers to help them adjust to new time zones.

Their research could extend well beyond athletics to benefit industries like trucking, where drivers often have fluctuating sleep schedules.

Risk of running

A runner is sidelined for six weeks after she suffers a stress fracture during an intense training session.

This storyline is all too common—especially among collegiate runners. Just ask U-M research fellow Cristine Agresta.

Cristine Agresta conducts running assessments for people of
all ages and abilities at the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory.
Photo: Michigan Photography/Scott Soderberg

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a collegiate athlete who’s never been injured,” said Agresta, who conducts running assessments for people of all ages and abilities at the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory. “Injuries are an issue for all runners, no matter their caliber or skill level. But for collegiate runners, the biggest issue is severity. These are young adults, so these injuries could impact them over the course of their entire life.”

The simple question then remains: how can we predict individual risk, and furthermore, how can coaches and athletes promote injury resilience?

A team of U-M researchers plans to answer those questions by analyzing datasets that shed light on everything from a runner’s biomechanics and medical history to their nutrition regimen and sleep schedule.

Agresta will partner with the U-M Biosocial Methods Collaborative and Michigan Athletics to develop a multi-level, systems-based model for studying running-related injury complexity in collegiate runners. The proposed framework will facilitate the development of analytical models that can predict individual risk, as well as identify unique determinants that can and should be corrected to promote resilience.

“The general thread that we’re after here is to get a better understanding of how this complex system of biology, psychology and nutrition all fit together,” said U-M Professor Richard Gonzalez, the principal investigator on the project. “We’re extending the way in which we look at injuries by studying the whole system of the runner, in the context of their entire life.”

This is in stark contrast to how injuries are assessed, where trainers and physicians are often more inclined to isolate each potential predictor. U-M researchers instead plan to develop new ways to analyze datasets that are consistent with a systems-based approach.

“We want to understand these complex relationships in a practical, meaningful and usable way, and on top of that, we want to form interventions around our findings,” said Agresta, who along with Gonzalez, eventually hopes to expand the target population to include new mothers and adults with heart disease. “There’s no better time than now to do this type of research because everyone has tons of data about themselves, but they don’t know what to do with it.”

References and Resources


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