Sports technology to train your head and body for epic fitness

Athletes are turning to tech to help them run faster, jump higher, push harder.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
5 min read
Tommy Gibson uses the PK Fitness mobile app to constantly push himself to new levels of strength and endurance.​​
Patrick Gookin

You're probably asleep at 4:30 a.m. Not Tommy Gibson. He's already awake for 40 minutes of military-style cross-training. Six days a week he pulls a car while wearing a harness, carries 75-pound sandbags, flips 400-pound tractor tires and whips thick "battle ropes" that work his entire body.

But Gibson, 36, wanted to push himself even more.

He decided to try PK Fitness, a mobile app co-created by his friend Bryan Clay, an Olympic gold medal decathlete. The PK stands for prospátheia and kairos, Greek for effort and time of possibility, respectively. When used with a heart rate monitor, the app creates an "effort score" that shows Gibson just how hard he's really working.

"I don't want to look down and see that the app says I gave a 50 percent effort," he says. "That's unacceptable." His workouts usually produce scores in the 70s and 80s (out of 100).

Now he's working to lower those scores.

"My goal is to do the same workout and get my effort level numbers down, because that means I'm in better shape," says Gibson, who owns a real estate company near Los Angeles. "That's doing the same run, but faster, and then moving on to the next challenge."

Tommy Gibson uses the PK Fitness mobile app to constantly push himself to new levels of strength and endurance.

Tommy Gibson uses the PK Fitness mobile app to constantly push himself to new levels of strength and endurance.

Patrick Gookin

Key in on his phrase "effort level," which trainers and sports psychologists say is vital for athletes to achieve higher performance levels. Think of it as a constant self-check, always asking yourself, "Am I working hard enough?" That's where technology can help. With it, we can see if our effort matches our perceptions, speed our reflexes, think faster on our feet and motivate ourselves to push further.

"Data and knowledge are power," says Bill Cole, a renowned sports psychologist and "mental game coach" who helps athletes cope with the demands of intense competition. Technology can be both motivational -- aiding people to stay focused and "override any severe limitations to willpower" -- and improve workouts, he says.

"It's definitely been an advantage for me," says Mackie Shilstone, who has trained more than 3,000 pro athletes, including tennis champion Serena Williams.

"I can put a monitor on Serena to track her heart rate and beat differential as she does a series of exercises and drills for me. And I can do that whether she is in Florida, California or Paris."

Mind games

Athletes need more than just physical prowess to perform at the highest levels. They also need lightning-quick mental processing. With it, an infielder knows where to run when the batter hits the ball, a Nascar driver sees the path to avoid a spinning car, or a cornerback anticipates a wide receiver's sprint down the sideline.

It turns out, there's an app to help with this, too. HeadTrainer claims athletes will think faster, make better decisions and improve their spatial awareness by playing its in-app games. Because the games get progressively harder, they exercise -- and train -- players' cognitive skills, including memory, focus and mental processing speed.

Now users want the app to do more, says HeadTrainer Chief Operating Officer Jon Pritchett. Along with mental drills, they want it to show exactly how All-Star baseball slugger José Bautista swings his bat so fast and powerfully. And they want to see, and copy, All-Pro football defensive back Richard Sherman as he trains to get so many interceptions.

"Our users want the athletes to serve as coaches and actually show them how to train both their brain and body," Pritchett says. As of this writing, the company is preparing a new version of the app, which will provide those demos.

As it happens

Last summer, the Women's Tennis Association began allowing players and their coaches to access real-time data during matches. During on-court breaks, tablet-carrying coaches can now show players where their serves landed, their weaknesses and the weaknesses of their opponents, and which bad habits they need to overcome.

"This gives the player the ability to make in-match changes and provides their coach with greater insight and context to help them," says Jenni Lewis, head of tennis technology for German software giant SAP, which provides the analytics.


For more CNET Magazine stories, click here.

James Martin/CNET

Imagine, for example, one player notices that an opponent has a hard time returning serves hit deep to the back corner. Naturally, the player will keep exploiting that weakness, causing the opponent to either flail at the ball or freeze midstance. That's where SAP's software can help: Showing that standing three steps to the right and to the back could help her return the serve.

"To be able to break down your opponent's game is so key in this day and age, you want any advantage you can get," former top-ranked player Lindsay Davenport says in an SAP video about the software. The Hall of Famer, who won 55 WTA singles titles, including Wimbledon and the US Open, coached rising star Madison Keys for the 2015 season.

Tough love

Caroline Sakanashi, 39, had battled weight issues most of her life, eventually ballooning to 275 pounds. Two years ago, an aunt's stinging comment made her desperate to shed that weight.

"She told me I looked like I didn't love myself," says Sakanashi, a merchandising director and married mother of two from Temple City, California. "I took it as a personal challenge."

Sakanashi turned to PK Fitness, the same app that now drives Gibson. Sakanashi says she usually reaches an effort score of 70 during her 30-minute workout of cardio, light weight lifting, squats and lunges.

"I need this affirmation, and if my effort is not good, it makes me want to try harder," says Sakanashi, who lost 30 pounds in five months.

Her results probably wouldn't surprise Ted Vickey, former executive director of the White House Athletic Center, where he served under three US presidents. "Technology is often blamed for our physical inactivity," Vickey says, "but if we use it properly for fitness, it can help improve our health."

As for Sakanashi: "My entire body shape is changing," she says.

Her outlook, too.

This story appears in the spring 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.