Science assists hurdler Lolo Jones on track
June 19, 2012,
The long-limbed red, green and blue stick figure on the computer screen hopped over the orange hurdle and hustled down the lane.
That brightly shaded avatar was a mirror image of hurdler Lolo Jones' movements on the track and just might go a long way in leading her to another color -- gold at the London Games.
Using computer-vision technology and 40 high-speed, motion-capture cameras, computer scientists, along with sports biomechanics and physiologists, have been studying every minute detail of Jones' form in practice as they try to figure out the fastest way to get her over the hurdles.
Jones' technique was captured on film, scrutinized on a video screen and sharpened on the track in a hush-hush program Red Bull dubbed "Project X."
The last time the energy drink company dedicated resources like this to an athlete, well, let's just say it turned out favorably for a certain redheaded snowboarder.
Before the 2010 Vancouver Games, Shaun White trained in seclusion on a halfpipe built for him in the back country of Colorado. He perfected his dazzling and dangerous Double McTwist 1260 under the cloak of secrecy, before unveiling it for the world to see, ultimately leading to an Olympic gold medal.
Soon, Jones will find out if her merger of sports and science has made her that much more technically sound when she tries to earn a spot on the U.S. team at the trials starting this week in Eugene, Ore.
And maybe, just maybe, even a medal down the road in London.
"We're hopefully taking an already bionic hurdler and giving her a little bit more input that may allow her to sharpen it up a little bit," said Andy Walshe, the director of high performance for Red Bull's North American athlete development program. "A lot of people are pushing really hard all over the world to stand on the top of that podium. It's hard, it's difficult and it's challenging. The fairy tale ending is exactly that, a fairy tale ending."
Jones nearly had a fairy tale finish four years ago in Beijing. Leading late in the final, Jones clipped the top of the ninth hurdle and stumbled toward the finish, watching others speed by her.
There went her Hollywood ending.
But through animation technology, she may have another chance later this summer.
In January, Red Bull assembled a multi-disciplinary team with various sports and scientific backgrounds to observe Jones' workouts on the track at Louisiana State University. They set up a bank of motion-capture cameras in the lane next to her, along with a specialized video camera that glided on a rail and tried to keep up with her.
They also attached 39 markers at strategic points on her body, which were designed to capture the position of her joints and limbs.
All the data was transmitted to a computer that reconstructed her body image in three dimensions, and once they had an accurate computer generation of Jones, the group was able to extrapolate just about anything, including contact time with the ground, velocity, toe angles and the acceleration of her center of mass.
From there, the team simply used physics and biomechanical principles to deduce the ideal movement pattern of a hurdler and adjust Jones so she moved closer to that ideal.
As it turned out, though, she was already technically sound -- at least based on current hurdling theory.
One of the missions of the project was to push the boundaries of those contemporary theories, maybe even expand those ideas.
"I might be a little bold here, but I would say for the most part any significant performance improvements are due to science," said Richard Kirby, a computer-vision scientist brought in as a consultant for this project. "Because if humans train the same way they always train, they're going to go the same speed they've always gone."
Over four months, the team observed Jones' training sessions, paying close attention to things such as her knee angle versus her center of mass and how she cleared the initial hurdle, because that first hurdle set the stage for everything else.
In addition to generating 3-D graphics, the group also printed out hard copies for her coach, Dennis Shaver, who preferred having paper in hand to better compare what he was seeing on the track.
For a baseline of comparison, researchers used Jones' performance during the semifinals in Beijing, when she finished in a personal-best time of 12.43 seconds.
"That was a good gauge," Shaver said. "Although, comparing that data in Beijing to the data they collect in training sessions is a little bit unfair, because in training sessions the intensity of work isn't quite the same."
Still, the data put them on the right track.
And clued them into something they were suspecting: Jones' first eight steps leading up to the initial hurdle could possibly be improved.
"What coach Shaver told us was that if she gets to the first hurdle in middle of the group, she wins the race 100 percent of the time," Kirby said. "If she doesn't get to the first hurdle with the group, then she's got a 50-50 shot."
Through their data collection and movement analysis, they identified that Jones' trail leg -- her left one -- also was trailing in the first eight steps coming out of the blocks. It wasn't generating the same type of acceleration as her right side.
Translation: She was theoretically losing time, at least according to what hurdling specialists know today. Kirby estimated there was room to gain 0.01 seconds per left step, provided that improving the left side didn't adversely affect the right.
"That's enormous in this sport," Kirby said.
A crucial discovery and one that may be remedied through leg-specific exercises in the weight room or simply with more sprinting, with no hurdles in the way.
As for tweaking her technique, those changes will be left for another time. The researchers didn't want to tinker too much this close to the Olympics.
"They've already got most of the puzzle figured out," Walshe said. "What the information was designed to do is support what they already know, and potentially reinforce some ideas they have.
"People think you need to do this to find an answer and that fixes it and then you run fast. It just doesn't work that way."
The project has led to a surge in confidence for a hurdler who's lately had her share of injuries. Jones is steadily rounding back into shape after undergoing back surgery to fix a tethered spinal cord last August.
"I just feel better prepared," Jones said.