Very interesting article. Time will tell if this is really an effective and economical way to test athletes.If not now, I imagine in the future, for sure, we'll see this happening.
In an unassuming area nestled inside Baylor’s weight room sits the university’s Department of Athletic Performance, which attempts to balance the football program’s strength training with equipment and data-collection tools rooted in a more scientific approach.
Players run, lift weights and exercise, as at every other school in the Football Bowl Subdivision, only with gear meant to augment more traditional methods. One tool, called Omegawave, allows the Bears’ staff to track a player’s heart rate and general athletic readiness. Players practice with a GPS monitor placed between their shoulder blades, with the goal of tracing the total distance traveled, and at what velocity.
These tools — along with several others — combine to allow staff members to tailor plans for individual student-athletes. Baylor’s latest advancement brings this specialization down to an even more precise level: a player’s DNA.
In the first such partnership on the NCAA level, Baylor has teamed with a Nova Scotia-based performance company, Athletigen, to develop individualized training programs based on a player’s genetic information. The collaboration, which began earlier this year, has the goal of using the collected genetic data to improve the performance, health and safety of Baylor’s athletes.
“We’re all trying to climb a mountain, and there’s an infinite number of ways we can do so,” said Dr. Jeremy Koenig, the CEO of Athletigen. “In knowing that information, you can optimize an athlete’s training plan or nutrition plan, based on their needs and also based on their goals.”
The process begins with a swab, which gathers DNA through a player’s saliva before being sent to Athletigen for analysis. Athletigen is then able to use the resulting data to unearth a trove of genetic information — including traits geared toward athletic ability.
These genetic tests could reveal additional insight, from a heightened risk of injury through nutritional demands; Athletigen may uncover a specific student-athlete’s heightened sensitivity to saturated fat, for example, which would allow the Bears’ nutritional staff to better prescribe an effective meal plan.
One gene both Athletigen and Baylor expect to find among the Bears’ student-athletes, called ACTN3, correlates with sprinting and power. The information will give Baylor’s training staff increased awareness of the individual needs of each athlete, which in turn can allow for a more concentrated and focused degree of training.
“For the most part, the higher you get in elite sports the more everybody is looking to uncover what can help them be better, and be the best athlete they can be,” said Chris Ruf, Baylor’s Director of Athletic Performance. “I suspect that we’ll have several athletes that because they’re very driven to be great, they’ll want to leave no stone unturned.”
Unlike basic medical tests, however — such as an annual physical or training data — the resulting genetic information is solely the property of the individual student-athlete. Athletigen will see the data in aggregate, meaning on a team-wide level, and will share with Baylor its findings.
Those who choose to participate in the program — and there has been nearly unanimous opt-in, Ruf said — have the option of not sharing the resulting material.
“We’re able to arm the athletes with a little more information about themselves,” Ruf said. “If they’re willing to share that information with us, then we can guide them to make some changes. If they don’t feel comfortable sharing that with us, it’s fine; they’ll have the information, and it’ll help guide them to make some better choices.”
Though the program remains in its infancy, Baylor sees benefits that will extend long after the end of a student-athlete’s playing career. In addition to giving players increased knowledge of their own inherent athletic ability, the genetic testing is expected have a profound impact on overall health and wellness, particularly in nutrition.
The hope, Ruf said, is that athletes can use this information to help take better care of their bodies — and not just as athletes but as individuals, and long after they leave Baylor.
“We want our athletes to be able to live to be real old, to be able to play with their grandkids and run around with them when they’re older,” he said.
“It’s another tool in that person’s tool box, to help them and us create a more resilient athlete and person down the road. It will ultimately help them not only in their athletic career, but part of this is also really looking at the long-term health of the individual as well.”
For the Bears’ training staff, which has long embraced cutting-edge technology, the genetic information provides an additional line of data: Baylor can add this knowledge to its growing collection of material on each athlete, granting its athletics department another slight edge against the competition.
“It’s just about giving athletes more information about their bodies so they can make the most intelligent decisions possible,” Koenig said. “This is a group where that last one percent matters, so they’re hungry for more.”