The future of fitness testing in sports

Fitness tests could become redundant in the future, since there is going to be a real time value for each and every athlete at any time with the touch of a button.

With sports changing multidimensionally, it is imperative that there will be significant advances in the field of fitness testing for sports, though these appear to be lagging behind in many ways still.   -  K. Murali Kumar

What is the purpose of fitness testing? To identify strengths and weaknesses of individual athletes. This is done by comparing the fitness test results of athletes in the same training group, the same sport or skill, or in a similar population. Even though each athlete is different, the testing score helps in identifying strengths and weaknesses and in resolving the latter. This helps in monitoring progress and assists in improving performance through specific training modules.

Fitness tests applied to champion sportspersons give the best results in the case of athletes who are in continued training with proper protocols designed.

In the past few years, there has been a huge outlook change in the way we play and watch sports as a result of a major eruption in scientific and technological advances in materials, training, injury management, nutrition, sports science and sports medicine, among other things.

Examples of such innovations are aerodynamic racing cars, streamlined swimsuits and bicycle designs, biomechanical analysis in various fields, energy-conserving sports shoes, genetic profiling, Dexa scans, specialised diets and drugs for performance enhancement, recovery mechanisms for athletes, load management software, GPS tracking devices, tactical and technical video replays and planning, movement-tracking software for varied sports and many more.

With sports changing multidimensionally, it is imperative that there will be significant advances in the field of fitness testing for sports, though these appear to be lagging behind in many ways still. Nowadays the majority of fitness tests used are not very different from 10 or 25 years ago. We still commonly use the Illinois agility test, beep/Yo-Yo runs, sit-and-reach flexibility, push-ups and strength tests.

A new test incorporating the latest technologies may be more accurate and easier to collect data and monitor changes, but the sports scientists’ community will be hesitant to use them without proper research results, years of experience performing such tests and an extensive database of results and norms on specific genome groups. A new testing pattern has to be much better than the existing one to give better reading values.

Already there are loads of wearable technology, such as smartwatches, GPS devices and software on phones, among others, that are transforming the fitness industry, providing a wealth of information about the body’s response to exercise, load on and off the field and empirical data about speed, torque, force and other parameters, and it is only a matter of time before these innovations become more widespread in helping collect fitness testing data for varied sports.

The technology currently available can be utilised to supplement current test protocols. The technology can help minimise measurement errors, reducing the need for trained assessors, enabling one to test larger groups at once, and even some athletes could accurately test themselves remotely. A good example of this is the vertical jump test. This test is essentially the same as has been used for over 50 years, but as new technologies have become available, the methods of measurement have changed. Instead of just placing a mark on the wall, jump height can be more accurately measured using lasers or force plates, and extra information about the force/velocity curve can be gained by jumping from a force plate. We have the technology to measure parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, sweat rate and movement speed, and can monitor muscle fatigue and recovery. These can be used to continuously monitor an athlete’s physiological responses, using GPS to accurately measure the running distance, trackers to accurately time how long to complete a test and sensors to count the number of repetitions. Using this technology and inferring data from these can give updated data on all parameters of fitness during different phases of training or a tournament.

This is much more practical in decision making and tactical planning for the coach and the team. Here are just some possible prototypes:

  • DNA tests to create an accurate physiological profile of an athlete to choose the sport they are suited for and can excel in.

  • Movement sensors using lasers to measure force, velocity, distance, trajectory and work output on and off the field.

  • Muscle enhancement tools for developing specific muscle groups and angles of movement required for each sport and skill.

  • Augmented reality for various sports to simulate situations and develop skills to execute them, both for teams and individuals.

  • Visual reality for visualisation and planning for events, for both strategy and analytical planning.

  • Brain wave mapping to check the state of alpha, beta and theta waves during decision making and stressful situations (basically, mental state tests).

  • Real-time tracking through GPS devices can measure speed at any time (speed, agility, distance covered, acceleration and deceleration, among other parameters).

  • Movement sensors for monitoring load, range of movement and repetitions and checking for correct technique (for example, strength or power tests).

  • Virtual reality for measuring agility and reaction times, placing the athlete in an actual but controlled game situation (reaction tests).

  • Microchip in the muscle to record the use of aerobic and anaerobic energy systems directly and measure the composition of muscle fibre types and muscle fatigue time and duration and the byproducts (i.e. anaerobic tests).

  • Wearable sensors that measure small movements in all directions, to enable accurate range-of-movement measurements of joints (flexibility tests).

  • Infrared and simple scanners providing an accurate method of measuring body fat levels (body composition tests).

  • Performance prediction tools to predict future performance of an athlete in varied situations and to calculate injury concerns (useful for management and sponsors).

  • Full body sensors for recovery and prediction for each muscle groups to prepare for the next event.

  • One device that can be individualised to predict overall fitness levels at regular intervals during the off-season, pre-season, in-season and post-season.

  • Daily data analysis of total fitness of each player, setting individual norms in all aspects of fitness and skill sets.

Fitness tests could become redundant in the future, since there is going to be a real time value for each and every athlete at any time with the touch of a button. This makes things very competitive and helps the coach, management and sponsors rely on their athletes to give their best for the season ahead. Who knows what else is in store in the future?