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Ability to quantify improvement in neuromuscular status is crucial in coaching athletes

Rapid changes in alpine skiing equipment and training methods mean that alpine and freeski skiers and snowboarders need to be able to develop their agility, strength and power more effectively than before. Performance coach and researcher Jonathan McPhail is using HUR Force Platform in his research to develop reliable testing methods for measuring and tracking the neuromuscular status of athletes.

Jonathan McPhail coaches alpine athletes, freeskiers and snowboarders at Vuokatti-Ruka Sports Academy, Finland. He has seen the advances in alpine and freeski skiing equipment as well as the enhancement in training methods.

- In the past ten years, the level of physical training in sport science has evolved quite a lot. It’s rather rare to see a sports institute or club that doesn’t have some kind of strength and kinaesthesia specialist to help with and plan daily training and testing, McPhail says.

The transition calls for faster and more reliable testing methods, and this is what McPhail’s study seeks to establish. Accurate neuromuscular profiles and the ability to compare results and monitor improvement are great tools in day-to-day coaching and training but also support post-injury rehab and might help reduce the risk of an injury.

- My aim is to have a good practical application that coaches start to implement. I coach at Vuokatti-Ruka Sports Academy, and of course our athletes will benefit from the methods. But I’m hoping that the application spreads out to different sports and other coaches, as well, McPhail outlines his objectives.

Detecting asymmetry might help with injury prevention

Asymmetry is one of the things that these tests might reveal. Not all muscle asymmetry is a risk factor, McPhail emphasises. If an athlete has had an asymmetry for many years, they might be able to compensate for it.
However, a significant asymmetry of more than 15 to 20 per cent that appears suddenly is a red flag.

- In alpine skiing and freeskiing for example, for whatever reason, more knee injuries occur on the left side than on the right. If an athlete is quite a lot stronger on their right side in speed, power and strength, then reducing that asymmetry might reduce the risk of an injury, McPhail says.

Jonathan McPhail is guiding Maisa Kivimäki in the assymmetry test where the athlete is using the weight lifting bar. In the upper picture Jade Linnatsalo is doing the jump test.

Ability to quantify improvement is useful information for coaching

McPhail’s study is still ongoing, but he already has interesting findings to report when it comes to detecting asymmetry in alpine athletes. - When we tested the quadriceps of a world cup level Finnish skier, we saw no asymmetry between his right and his left side in power or strength. When we tested him for his hamstrings, we found a 35 per cent difference in strength and force development, his left being considerably weaker, McPhail says.

With this valuable information, the coaches could adapt his training and then monitor the progress for the next few months. As a result, they were able to reduce the asymmetry during off-season.

- Hamstrings are usually hard to test, unless you have a full science laboratory. With the HUR force plate, we can test the hamstring easily and quickly, which is great considering the amount of training we do with the athletes. Being able to quantify the improvements is extremely useful information for us coaches, McPhail says.

Support for successful rehab

In addition to injury prevention, the information coaches get from regular tests on the force plate can be extremely useful during rehab, also.

- Say an athlete suffers a big injury, like an ACL injury. If you’ve got some data from a week before of the person doing a jump, for instance, that provides good baseline data. You can monitor the improvement during the rehab, and you have something to look back on, McPhail says.

With measured data, coaches and physiotherapists are able to accurately determine the right time to return to the sport after injury and rehab.

We can see which markers to improve before the athlete is ready to get back onto the slope or field. We actually want them to be in a better condition than before the injury, because they got injured with that specific neuromuscular profile. – Jonathan McPhail

Fast and reliable equipment spares athletes’ time for training

But how to make testing a regular routine, when many athletes have a negative view of testing? Traditionally, they have had to go in for a couple of days of somewhat brutal tests, and then no one does anything with that information. A real disservice to the athletes, says McPhail. The athletes need to know why they are being tested and what’s in it for them.

- With the HUR force plate, all the information is stored in one place. You’re able to see previous tests quickly, compare today’s testing to the previous months’ testing, and track changes over time. That’s useful for the coaches and rewarding for the athletes.”

For McPhail, the keyword is ‘fast’.

- With HUR’s equipment, we can test numerous athletes quickly. If the equipment is slow, you lose a lot of time on testing, and you’re keeping the athletes away from their training. Capturing reliable data quickly is one of the most important things to consider when testing athletes, McPhail concludes.

 I think it’s really important for coaches and athletes that when you’re testing them, you are providing the best circumstance you can. That is why I prefer to use equipment that is the gold standard of what you are measuring. – Jonathan McPhail

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