In January, American track star Lolo Jones, with the help of Red Bull Project X, undertook a top-secret, ultra high-performance training program -- maybe the most technologically advanced training program in history.
A team of scientists trekked down to LSU's campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Jones lives and trains. They set up a course of 50 Vicon Mocap cameras -- the type of 3-D motion-capture technology used in creating those super-realistic sports video games -- to capture Lolo and relay real-time data to chief scientist Richard Kirby and functional sport expert Vern Gambetta, who then worked closely with Lolo’s longtime coach, Dennis Shaver, to interpret the data and devise methods to shave time off Lolo’s runs.
They used an Optojump, an optical LED-based system set on the ground to capture contact times and a Phantom camera, which captured imagery at up to 1,250 frames per second and provided visual interpretation to minuscule detail.
“Previously you were going on coach’s intuition [and] fairly inaccurate video analysis," says Shaver. "Red Bull Project X has allowed us to eliminate all guess work and get right down to the finite, exact thousandth of a second of what is going on and try to make changes that will benefit her. Ultimately the whole project is about, and what an elite athlete is trying to do, is shave milliseconds off ground contact times, milliseconds off each one of those hurdle clearances. If you can do that you are probably going to be on the podium at the end of the day."
Athletes have used motion capture before, but never like this, never over the length of a track run. And it has never been used on a hurdler outdoors. In January and February, Lolo tested the technology indoors to coincide with the indoor-track season, but as her training moved outdoors, so did the Vicon Mocap cameras and the Optojump.
The extended length of the outdoor motion-capture course allowed for the most realistic replication of racing scenarios and enabled the team to focus on details from her start to her takeoff on the first hurdle, and her rhythm and contact times through several sets of hurdles.
The project utilized up to 50 cameras and 39 body markers with cameras capturing a frame rate of 250 frames per second, resulting in over 30,000 points of 2-D and 3-D data per second of her run. "You have just 12 seconds to do all of this," says Lolo, one of the world's best in the 60-meter and 100-meter hurdles.
"Having this technology and just making sure every little thing is clear and precise and we can find the mistakes before we go to a big competition, it's vital," she says. "It's not something that coach Shaver or I could have done on our own. It takes a team."
This level of data provided the team a rich set of information to tweak Lolo’s training and find ways improve her times. Some of the key findings include identifying center of mass position versus toe-touchdown point, which determines sprint mechanics efficiency, a piece of information that was impossible to detect from previous technology. The quick rendering of data and relay to track computers allowed for in-session feedback, speeding up what would be weeks of analysis into under an hour.
"Having the data -- and using the data to improve," says Lolo, "and knowing that I can fix my errors and practice and get smarter and better and faster in the practices, that’s what’s going to help me in the races. I feel like Red Bull Project X is my edge. And sometimes that’s all you need.”