Laser technology at Stellenbosch University helping sprinters

Gareth Paterson asseses Merlin Diamond (Namibia) using the FAST system.
Date:19 April 2012 Tags:, ,

Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Human Performance Sciences (CHPS) has initiated a new research project in partnership with TimeTronics, the world-leading commercial provider of athletics timing equipment. The project is called the “Southern African Sprinting Project” and its purpose is to help sprinters and hurdlers improve their start, acceleration and running technique in distances up to 400 metres.

Using a unique combination of force-sensitive starting blocks, laser tracking and high-speed cameras, a precise performance profile of each athlete is calculated with special software. Immediate visual feedback as well as detailed written reports are provided that allows the coach to determine what kinds of changes in technique and/or training are necessary if the athlete is to perform faster.

This cutting-edge technology was initially developed by biomechanists and coaches and Katholiek Universeit Leuven in Belgium, then refined by TimeTronics to become the FAST (Force, Acceleration, Speed, Time) System. There are only three other sprint training centres in the world that have this sophisticated technology (in China, Belgium, and the Netherlands), and the system has recently been used by sprinters like Usain Bolt (Jamaica) and Dwain Chambers (Great Britain). FAST System analysis in Africa is only available through the Centre for Human Performance Sciences at Stellenbosch University.

According to Mr Gareth Paterson, a CHPS sports technologist working on the project: “The FAST system was developed in order to close the gap between coaches and those scientists who can generate high quality data and scientific analysis of performance. The information fed back to athletes and coaches is immediate and directly relevant to improving speed and acceleration during sprinting.”

The system is made up of two components: the first component is the high-tech starting blocks, which record a number of performance parameters affecting the start action of sprinters, for example, total time of the start action, reaction time of left and right leg push-off, pre-tension on the left and right block in the ‘set’ position, maximum force generated by the legs on the left and right block, speed out of the blocks and acceleration out of the blocks.

The second component includes a high tech laser that is set up behind the athlete, very similar to a speed radar gun.

“There are a surprising number of parameters that the laser measure during a sprint,” says Mr Paterson.

Speed and acceleration is calculated from position-time data which is recorded by a laser beam orientated towards the lower back of the athlete, which gives 400 laser positioning measurements every second.

“This gives us millimetre accuracy for various parameters,” Mr Paterson says. These include exact speed in five-metre intervals from the first five m (metres per second) to the end of the race; acceleration between every five metre interval; accurate timing every five metre interval; maximum speed reached during the run; distance at which maximum speed is reached, and of course, stride rate and stride length of the athlete throughout the run.

The system is entirely portable. Road trips are planned to Namibia and Botswana later in the year.

CHPS conducts most of its FAST assessment and analysis sessions in partnership with Maties Athletics on the track at Coetzenburg Stadium. School children, Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls and visiting international athletes from Great Britain, Germany and Belgium were among the athletes tested during the past few months.

There have been some exciting applications of the FAST system recently as part of the project’s link with the University’s a HOPE Project and the commitment to bring the benefits of technology to the broader community.

Nabeela Parker, a promising young local sprinter, began working with her coach and the FAST system. Within four weeks she reduced her 12 seconds plus 100 metre time to 11,78, the fastest time recorded by a South African female this year. According to Mohamed Ally, sprint coach at Maties Athletics and technical consultant for the project: “There were a few issues with her start, as well as the planning of her race. Within just one FAST session, we gathered an amazing amount of information. The starting blocks and laser-based measurements from the FAST analysis allowed us to pin point areas of weakness in both the start movement as well as the actual run, and the high speed cameras allowed us to zero-in on technique.

The FAST assessment system also has benefits for athletes recovering from injuries who are trying to regain their form. Namibian Merlin Diamond, Olympic 100 metre sprint hopeful, came to CHPS for a week of FAST assessment and coaching. Mr Sean Surmon, strength and conditioning specialist for the project, worked with Mohamed Ally to determine how to help Merlin. He commented, “With the FAST analysis, we can immediately pick-up issues in the start that require rehabilitation, for example, strength differences in legs, differences in reaction time, or problems with force production. The FAST system gives us the opportunity to design and deliver evidence-based strength and conditioning programmes, customised specifically for each athlete.”

“Coaches should see the FAST System as a tool,” says Ally. “The beauty of this technology is that FAST analysis blocks and laser technology can tell us exactly what is happening in a sprinter’s performance, and the high-speed cameras give us insight into what may be causing any problems. All this information is then reviewed with the coach, who can then decide what kinds of adjustments are advisable, based on his/her personal knowledge of the athlete.”