The winning numbers
Our bodies produce an endless supply of data — in the form of biomarkers — that can be leveraged to improve how we feel and function. When Ohio State doctors and athletic department staffers team up with U.S. Air Force researchers to unlock the clues these indicators offer patients, athletes and service members, there are implications for all of us.
A wrestler’s life revolves around numbers. He trains, diets and sweats his way to an exact weight before each match, and just a fraction of a pound can keep him from competing on a given day.
He can rattle off his personal best in the bench press, squat and dead lift faster than his address and phone number. Ditto for his record of wins and losses. And he’s constantly trying to move up in the rankings and down in the time it takes to pin his opponent.
So, when Ohio State wrestler Kenny Courts ’16 struggled to figure out why his talent wasn’t translating to wins on the mat, it makes sense his coaches eventually found the answer in numbers.
The solution for Courts came with the analysis of numbers that live within his body, called biomarkers. Think of a biomarker as any piece of internal data that can be measured, from basics such as heart rate and glucose levels to more complicated things like hormones and enzymes.
Tapping into this endless stream of numbers has huge implications for everyone from athletes to soldiers to workers. Researchers see a time in the future when you’ll be able to access your body’s data within seconds and then use it to make smarter decisions about your health.
Say you’re thinking about hitting the gym after work. Someday, a watch could analyze your body’s biomarkers in an instant and reveal whether you’re sufficiently recovered from yesterday’s activities to work out today. What if a surgeon could tell in seconds, based on her own biological data, whether her brain and body are in the optimal state to operate on a patient?
Your body has the numbers to tell you whether you’re dehydrated, fighting off a cold or able to perform at your peak physically and mentally. Harnessing that information is just a matter of accessing the data.
Researchers say the road to that reality is a long one — with the destination likely years away — but a partnership between Ohio State and the U.S. Air Force could be the first step in unlocking the answers.
Those involved in the research are first studying three groups: athletes, patients and military troops. For the past four years, researchers from Ohio State’s Department of Athletics, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base have been collecting and exchanging biomarker data and looking for trends.
‘We had to do some science’
Courts arrived at Ohio State in 2011 after being heavily recruited by a slew of Division I wrestling programs. A Pennsylvania state champion in high school, he was poised to carry his winning ways to Columbus. But success didn’t come as easily as it had before.
His first three seasons as a Buckeye were up and down. His fourth season started the same way, and after two straight losses, Courts and Head Coach Tom Ryan knew something had to change.
“I had a goal, and Coach Ryan needed me to perform,” Courts says. “So we had to do some science.”
That meant visiting Don Moxley ’85, ’86 MA, an exercise physiologist, consultant and trainer. At the time, Moxley was an assistant professor of exercise science at Urbana University, but his connections to the Ohio State wrestling program have always run deep. While competing as a Buckeye in the mid-1980s, Moxley earned a Big Ten championship title. After graduation, Moxley remained connected and formed a relationship with Ryan when the latter became head coach in 2006.
In the winter of 2015, when Courts was struggling, Ryan knew exactly where to turn. Moxley looked at the wrestler’s heart rate variability, a measure of the time between heartbeats, and could tell right away something was wrong.
“Kenny was spending too much time training too intensely,” Moxley says. “He was spending no time building what we call an aerobic base.” This base gives athletes endurance and the ability to recover from intense training.
Courts adjusted his training program. And for the first time in a while, he started seeing noticeable results. “I was wrestling better each match,” Courts recalls. “Gradually things started coming together.”
He hit his stride at the perfect time — the 2015 NCAA championships in St. Louis. Courts had an unexpected run in the semifinals, where he finished fifth and earned All-American status. His victory also gave Ohio State the points it needed to earn the first NCAA team national championship in the wrestling program’s 94-year history.
Not only had Courts turned around his season, but his training adjustments represented a breakthrough for the wrestling team, demonstrating how measuring an athlete’s biomarkers could actually translate into success on the mat.
A new way to train
It’s late September and just about a month before the start of the competitive wrestling season. Inside Ohio State’s Steelwood Training Facility, pairs of wrestlers are spread across scarlet and gray mats, sparring and sweating as hip-hop music blares through the gym’s speakers. From afar, it all seems pretty normal.
But look closer, and you’ll see one wrestler lying down in a corner with sensors on his chest and head monitoring his heart rate and central nervous system activity. Another athlete is pedaling quickly on a stationary bike while a flash drive captures information about how hard he’s working. Still another wears a high-tech shirt embedded with a wireless heart monitor as a TV screen on the wall displays his heart rate in real time.
Moxley, now on staff as a sports science consultant with the wrestling team, is the conductor of this well-orchestrated event. “To have this set of data falling into my lap every day, it’s incredibly valuable to me,” he says.
The information Moxley’s referring to is pulled into a spreadsheet so he can track each wrestler’s numbers and discern trends. It also goes directly to military researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, who help Moxley look for patterns.
The numbers might reveal — as they did for Courts — that an athlete is not sufficiently recovering. A wrestler’s brain activity might show he needs to improve his focus or get better sleep. Armed with this data, coaches can create more personalized training and recovery regimens to help a wrestler enhance his physical and mental conditioning.
“The old-school way of training is you eyeball it,” Coach Ryan says. “Now, there’s so much
data out there you can get on a student-athlete. The desire to put people in the most productive training environment is what stimulated all this.”
Wrestling isn’t the only Ohio State team that’s captivated by numbers. Football was the first program to start measuring athletes’ biomarkers, and the men’s lacrosse team has followed. In these sports, players wear a chip in their pads that’s linked to GPS, which measures how fast and far they’re moving.
“We can start to analyze trends based on how they’re performing on the field,” says Angie Beisner ’96, Ohio State’s head athletic trainer. “We noticed members of our men’s lacrosse team were not as hydrated as they needed to be. They weren’t sleeping very well. The amount of sleep they had correlated to how sore they were, and how sore they were correlated to how many goals we gave up.”
It’s these trends that provide huge insights for coaches, allowing them to adjust training, improve an athlete’s recovery and prevent injuries. But all of this information — millions and millions of data points — also is providing huge insights for a group of researchers about an hour from Columbus.
Just east of Dayton sits Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, home to more than 27,000 military and civilian employees. One of them is Dr. Josh Hagen, a researcher with the base’s 711th Human Performance Wing, which is dedicated to improving performance, training and recovery for active-duty service members.
At Wright-Patterson, Hagen and other researchers face difficulty studying special operations troops because of their demanding schedules and the nature of their training. When he was seeking elite-level human subjects for his research, it made perfect sense that this “huge Buckeyes fan” made a call to Ohio State.
His premise is that a college athlete’s experience is similar to what special operations forces endure — intense training followed by even more intense competition. Hagen hoped that he could eventually apply what he learned from research involving student-athletes to help troops in battle. Broad applications for the military are still likely years away, but to get to that point, Hagen is finding trends and testing theories with Ohio State athletes.
Hagen has worked directly with athletic teams for the past four years, providing them with next-generation equipment and then collecting data to analyze trends. He describes it as a win-win partnership: The Air Force gets millions of data points to aid in its studies, and the teams get access to equipment and military researchers’ expertise.
“We provide a kind of performance science service for the university,” says Hagen, whose unit works directly with coaches to make adjustments in an athlete’s training and recovery. What they’ve found so far is that recovery is critical. If an athlete isn’t recovering properly and getting the right rest between practices, he or she will never be at peak performance on game day.
“We actually measure how hard athletes’ bodies are working during every practice,” he says. “But what’s probably more important than that is when they wake up the next day, how did their bodies adapt to that workload?”
Researchers gauge this by measuring heart rates and brain activity. The goal is to get the athlete to a point where he’s not overly stressed or overly relaxed. One remedy, already in use by the football team, is a float tank — a soundless, lightless tank filled with salt water that Hagen says not only addresses physical ailments, but helps put an athlete’s nervous system in perfect balance. Researchers also monitor sleep patterns and nutrition.“So many schools are just buying all this technology and they don’t really know how to apply it,” says Doug Calland ’81, Ohio State’s associate athletic director for sport performance, who oversees the partnership between the Department of Athletics and the Air Force. “That’s where the Air Force has really helped us. It’s a great way to pool all of our resources for a common goal.”
The implications of understanding our bodies’ data go way beyond the military and athletics. That’s why there’s another piece to this partnership, this one involving researchers from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Researchers in the Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance are collecting biomarker data from dozens of patients, focusing on everything from inflammation to chronic pain. The goal is to understand how these biomarkers impact not only a person’s body, but also how they affect his brain. In other words, can certain biomarkers in the body be tied directly to memory, focus, attention or concentration?
“We used to think that in our day-to-day activities, the brain pretty much just took care of itself,” says John Corrigan ’77 MA, ’81 PhD, a professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and researcher with the Ross Center. “Now we are discovering there are ways to manage ourselves to optimize brain health.”
Corrigan says if we can understand this brain-body connection, we can make adjustments in our physical life — such as how we sleep or exercise — to enhance our mental health. For instance, a student could know exactly how much sleep to get in order to be
at her best for an exam. A truck driver could look at his smartphone to see whether his body and mind are in optimal condition before a long drive.
The research can apply to all of us, Corrigan says, adding, “Everybody has parts of their day or events during their week when they would really like to be at their very best.”
Doctors even see a time when certain biomarkers could be used to predict diseases such as dementia or Parkinson’s. That will take time — and a lot of research. But the unique partnership between the U.S. Air Force and Ohio State, with its champion-caliber athletic teams and world-class medical center, is positioned to find answers in the data that lives within all of us.
The potential benefits, like the numbers, are endless.
About the author
Justin Moss is a writer with University Marketing and a student in the MBA program in Fisher College of Business.