WheelPower: wheelchair sports and data science push it to the limit
The Netherlands won 59 medals and finished fifth in the medal standings at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games. TeamNL athletes captured 25 gold, 17 silver and 17 bronze medals. To maintain and even strengthen this position in this rapidly professionalising field, more knowledge is needed on how to optimise the ability of athletes in wheelchairs to improve their competitive performance. This requires not only new knowledge based on objective measurement data from training, testing and competitions, but, in particular, direct feedback of the analysed data to athlete and coach to optimise training, wheelchair adjustment and competition performance.
The aim of the WheelPower project is therefore to improve performance by optimising the power delivered by athletes during training and competition. The results lead to new scientific knowledge about optimal power delivery in a (sports) wheelchair. This innovative knowledge is implemented in this project through direct feedback to athlete and coach and ensures continuous improvement of the wheelchair athletes' performance.
We spoke to Riemer Vegter, associate professor of exercise science (UMCG, RuG, Groningen) in October 2022. Wheelpower has been extended by six months and will run until mid-2024.
A national consortium is collaborating in this project, consisting of three universities (Groningen, Delft and Amsterdam), a university of applied sciences (The Hague), NOC*NSF, the five sports federations involved (wheelchair basketball, tennis, athletics, triathlon and rugby), four sports innovator centres (Groningen, Papendal, Delft, Amsterdam), two rehabilitation centres (Reade and Basalt) and two leading commercial partners in the field of motion analysis and ergometry (Lode and ProCare). Delft Data Science and Sport Data Valley are involved as data science partners for the big-data analysis and infrastructure. "Our measurement methods can now be used very well in the field. By combining these sports, we can make the group size stronger and the data collection larger scale. We already knew all these partners and so we are very strong together."
"At WheelPower, we study how individuals in wheelchairs deliver their physical power and how this can be improved. We monitor this in the field and in the lab. We have appointed three people for this purpose; two PhD researchers and one postdoc."
The focus of the first researcher - Marit van Dijk, PhD student at TU Delft - is on continuously monitoring wheelchair performance and power during training and competition in the field with acceleration sensors. Training and competition are monitored to identify the actual load on athletes. This uses small sensors on the wheelchair and torso that measure every movement of the athlete.
"Currently, the researchers are in Denmark at the Rugby World Cup and by now we have measurements and data collection in the field in all five sports."
The second researcher - Rowie Janssen, PhD student at the University of Groningen - analyses the athletes' maximum (an)aerobic power output in the lab. This involves using the Lode Esseda ergometer, which can objectively measure power output. Through strength, sprint and endurance tests, the physical characteristics of the athletes are measured. "One of the results already achieved in the project is the development of a protocol on what to actually measure, which did not exist before for these wheelchair sports."
Continuous monitoring of power during training and competition, combined with immediate feedback on it, allows wheelchair athletes and their coaches to use the results of objective lab and field tests directly. Based on this power data and scientific knowledge, training guidelines can be developed, wheelchair activities can be optimised, competition strategies can be refined and the wheelchair can be technically improved and individually adjusted. In this way, athletes can better prepare themselves during competition for top performance during competition. "Yesterday, Rowie won the Tibor Hortobagyi PhD Research Impact Award 2022, particularly because she has already been able to make a direct impact on several athletes with her research. Nice how this shows how you can translate science into practice."
The postdoc at the TU Delft - Rienk van der Slikke, lecturer and researcher at De Haagse Hogeschool and Embedded Scientist wheelchair sport - is integrating the researchers' results by shaping the 'Performance Portfolio' as a basis for immediate feedback for optimising training and wheelchair technology. The huge mountain of data is translated into easily interpretable outcomes and fed back centrally to coaches and athletes.
"The researchers unfortunately had an awkward corona start, in fact they had to quit everything immediately. Because of this delay, we have a six-month extension, we are still looking for a solution to be able to keep both PhDs in this. Unfortunately, we don't have a solution for that yet." Meanwhile, the researchers have enough data from the field and lab to shape the 'Performance Portfolio'. Other major challenges are athlete numbers and finding enough available athletes. "Paralympic sport often consists of small groups, through our strong consortium and pooling across sports we are fortunately able to collect the necessary data. Perhaps we can also intensify international cooperation in the future."
"We are especially looking beyond summer 2024, our wish is that this research never stops, our goal is to develop something lasting. The Paralympic Games in Paris in 2024 are also a kind of measuring point. We hope we will then have been able to support athletes well during their preparations towards it. To further shape and better implement research on adapted sports, we are also working on a new structure. So that we can provide structural funding for research and continue to professionalise the whole field."
More information: wheelpower.online
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