- Matt Hauck
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A SPORTS SCIENTIST
Tracking hydration on a regular basis allows medical and performance practitioners in a team setting to optimize athlete recovery and performance. Hydration is central to basic health and wellness and can prove to be a difference maker in training and competition. Whether it affects decision making, reaction time, or physical performance, the negative impacts of not being optimally hydrated can act as compounders to a variety of elements that detract from team performance.
In team sports, one athlete can have a domino-like effect on their teammates. While one dehydrated athlete out of many team members may not seem significant, the impact on their performance can indeed trickle down to negatively impact those around them. Missing assignments on offense or defense, limited cognitive function, recognition and communication, and reduced physical performance doesn’t happen in a bubble. These individual lapses affect the players around them and thus the game itself. These realities only further enforce the idea that better understanding foundational elements of health and performance such as hydration is a key priority for high performance staff.
The daily schedule within a team setting produces many logistic and operational challenges for high performance staff. Optimizing performance demands action to be taken by both staff and players alike. Central to these demands are athlete monitoring practices such as hydration tracking that help define the recovery and performance status of the athlete. While there are many valuable approaches within athlete monitoring, many existing methods can be time consuming. Unfortunately, time itself may be the most valuable commodity when considering the daily schedule for high performance staff.
Defining the High Performance Team
Keeping a team as healthy as possible while performing at high levels takes the dedication of a knowledgeable and experienced medical and performance staff. Often regarded as High Performance staff, the team of athletic trainers, strength and conditioning specialists, rehab therapists, nutritionists and sport scientists each play a vital role in achieving the task at hand.
Athletic trainers are helping treat minor injuries or nagging issues prior to practice, assessing risk factors or symptoms, and monitoring overall health factors of athletes. The general idea of caring for and prevention of athletic injuries is central to their focus, as their main working tasks pre, during, and post practice indicate. The athlete is constantly under the watchful eye of an athletic trainer.
Rehab specialists such as a Sports Therapist, Physical Therapist, Performance Therapist, or Physiotherapist work hands on with athletes when an injury has occurred that often requires the athlete to miss time from practice or competition. The rehab specialists track and monitor many portions of the athlete’s physical function, recovery, and performance progress during the return to play process.
Strength and conditioning specialists are often charged with helping the athletes warm up prior to training or practice, as well as providing strength and conditioning programming to help athlete maintain or enhance performance levels specific to their sport. The recovery status and performance outcomes for each athlete are important for strength and conditioning specialist to monitor as it can impact the work the athlete is to perform in the gym or on the field, court, or rink.
Nutritionists and dietitians are tasked with understanding the recovery status of the athlete each day, as well as the total work outputs they incur during trainings, practices and games. The information they monitor informs the hydration, nutrition, and recovery strategies they provide athletes on a daily basis.
The sport scientist often acts as both the facilitator of athlete monitoring and assessment protocols as well as the conduit of monitoring metrics between each staff. Regardless of the monitoring tool or activity, the sport scientist helps collect, organize, and analyze meaningful health and performance data for each staff member to use on a daily basis.
High performance staff members work closely together each day, and accordingly there are underlying metrics that overlap between each staff’s monitoring initiatives. With so much going on, outlining a daily schedule for high performance staff better highlights just how valuable their time is as well as how monitoring initiatives are shared.
High Performance Staff: A Day In the Life…
If you asked a high performance staff member to think of all of the daily tasks they face on a normal day, the response will undoubtedly include some variation of “please define ‘normal’”. While there are typical daily schedule outlines, there are constant shifts in focus due to game or competition schedule, travel schedule, phase of the season, exams or testing, and more.
Consider an outline for a “typical” daily schedule of a team practicing in the morning on a normal practice day.
Members of the high performance staff arrive at their training facility between 6:00 – 6:30AM. They immediately set up work stations for treating athletes, spend time setting out hydration monitoring tools in addition to other recovery or workload monitoring methods, and in general prepare the locker room, training room, gym, and facility for the arrival of the athletes to meet the needs of the day.
From 7:30-8:30AM, the high performance staff hold their daily meeting to discuss the plan for the day and follow up on necessary tasks within each specific department. The needs of the group are addressed, and individual plans for specific athletes are outlined. These plans are outlined an the coaching staff is informed of the status of each player.
Prior to 8:30AM each staff member is monitoring wellness survey responses from the team hoping to receive valuable information on changes in status. Upon arrival, athletes are greeted and communication is establish if follow up is needed on recovery or treatment needs. After athletes have had breakfast, athletic trainers are hard at work treating athlete needs.
From 8:30-9:30AM, athletes are eating meals, watching game film, speaking to coaches and teammates, and completing in-person monitoring methods to capture recovery or readiness to train. At 9:30AM, members of the team may congregate to the gym to begin warming up while others finish treatments with athletic trainers.
The non-stop activity has meant that all set up for practice on the field or on the court must be completed early in the morning. Once players finish receiving treatments with the athletic trainers, the staff has very little time to clean up, report any new issues of availability to coaches, and head to practice.
The athletic trainers gather their equipment and head out to support the strength and conditioning staff as the formal team warm up begins promptly at 10:00AM. There is an issue though- today was a key day for tracking the hydration status of the team during a hard week of training. One athletic trainer had to head to the locker room after treating athletes until 9:45AM. They gathered all of the testing strips and equipment, put on gloves, and assessed the players who were scheduled to perform the hydration test this morning.
Here is where the “fun” starts for this athletic trainer. They have to make sure that all of the athletes who were asked to perform the test actually performed it, meaning there may be empty testing cups in the locker room or bathroom, spilled testing cups, and even more time wasted.
The athletic trainer tests all of the samples as quickly as they can, and the best they can do is crudely record all the numbers on a piece of paper. It is now 10:10AM, practice started 10 minutes ago, and the hydration data is just now making it’s way out to practice.
Because of the chaotic pre-practice schedule, the athletic trainers were not able to see that 3 athletes didn’t do the test. In addition to that there are 4 players who are abnormally, significantly dehydrated and a handful more who are showing signs of sub-optimal hydration as well. By the time the athletic training staff had the time to finish the hydration testing and communicate the results, it was too late to do anything about it prior to practice.
Think of this missed opportunity in relationship to performance outcomes. What if this was a day or 2 before a big game? What if one of the players who missed the hydration test was also showing signs of fatigue in other assessments? What if one of the dehydrated players still doesn’t hydrate adequately and their dehydration continues into game day, slowing down their recovery and impacting their performance?
All of these aspects could have been avoided in theory, but the reality is that the high performance staff are juggling so many responsibilities that some aspects of caring for athletes simply get pushed back out of necessity. This doesn’t mean the staff aren’t doing great work, but it does mean that if the staff want to maximize all of their approaches to monitoring key aspects like hydration that they must make changes to either their schedule or their monitoring approach itself.
One Measurement Does Not Fit All
There are well documented methods of tracking hydration in team sports. Practices such as weigh-ins and urine color monitoring are thought of as being very low cost, low barrier to entry ways to assess hydration. Unfortunately, in the real world these ideals can often fall short of meeting expectations.
For anyone who has ever worked in team sports, it’s no secret that a communal area such as the locker room or team bathroom isn’t exactly an ideal set up for any athlete monitoring procedures. Noise, clutter, distractions, and lack of workspace are virtually guaranteed to exist in most settings. When considering using the pre- and post-practice weigh-in method for fluid loss and hydration tracking, it is easy to see how the environment can impact the process.
The main assumption of pre- and post-practice weigh-ins centers on the athlete wearing the exact same clothing and apparel for each weigh-in. If an athlete is late, they may rush onto the scale with or without specific apparel or equipment. After the session the athlete may or may not remember their exact pre-practice outfit, and even if athletes are able to standardize their outfit (or lack thereof) for weigh-ins, it becomes challenging to standardize timing from day to day.
Pre- and post-practice weigh-ins are indeed a low cost option for monitoring fluid loss and hydration, but the reality is that accuracy and reliability of the information is almost certainly going to suffer. Additionally, if the data is actually recorded and any trends for individual athletes are assessed, these accuracy and reliability issues will seriously impact the ability to draw conclusions from this data.
Another popular method of tracking hydration status is subjective assessment of urine color. Teams often spread infographics on bathroom walls to instruct athletes on a color scheme to assess athlete hydration when using the restroom. This option is attractive as it can be done at any time without the need for dedicated staff. The glaring issue is that there is little to no takeaway from this method; no objective data is gathered, and athletes are left to subjectively gage the color of their urine.
Further issues of urine color monitoring is that little to nothing is actually reported to a high-performance staff member. No objective data is tracked, communicated, or assessed for individual trends. The main benefit of urine color monitoring is to create a general awareness of relative hydration levels.
Gold Standards As Double-Edged Sword
Urine specific gravity (USG) has long been considered a gold standard of hydration status assessment for athletes. There are several ways to capture this data, and some common methods involved the use of a test strip or dipstick, or alternatively the use of a refractometer. In both cases, athletes are required to submit a urine sample in the morning to be assessed.
Gathering USG gives a high-performance staff objective data on the hydration status of an athlete, as data norms have been established for the adult population. Being able to objectively quantify USG for each athlete and monitor individual trends allows for specific hydration plans to be implemented.
While test strips or refractometers have helped capture quality data on hydration status, they don’t come without a price. The equipment itself can be costly, but more importantly the task itself requires time and dedicated staff to implement. By the time an athletic trainer or team nutritionist reviews notes, sets out cups, audits and collects samples, tests samples, records data, cleans up, inputs data for recording and reports on testing results to the staff, they have spent over an hour of their day on testing urine.
These are extreme efforts to go to in order to capture more accurate data on hydration, and as previously outlined the chaotic daily schedule within the team setting means that this data might not even be available in a timely matter that allows it to be acted on.
The complexity of juggling multiple tasks such as hydration tracking, treating, or training athletes means that even tasks of a higher priority will suffer. What would it mean for an athletic trainer to be able to continue treating or working with athletes before practice rather than shuffling through test strips? What if a nutritionist was able to manage hydration stations during practice or training rather than throw away urine cups after testing samples? And how much would each staff member, and thus each athlete, benefit from being able to focus on their main responsibilities?
While the object data on USG is indeed an improvement over weigh-ins and urine color tracking, having that data captured and reported after practice or training has started means that the opportunity may have already been lost. High performance staff don’t want to spend added time manually inputting hydration data hours after practice has ended either.
Its Time To Evolve
High accuracy assessments used to capture elements such as USG must become part of the foundational athlete monitoring practices of a staff. As has been highlighted, existing methods capture great data at a price. What is needed is for high accuracy data to be available in time to take action.
Intake Health’s approach to capturing USG has revolutionized hydration tracking. The solution offers high accuracy urinalysis within a timely manner while utilizing a low maintenance assessment tool. The Intake Health hydration tracking infrastructure means no hours collecting samples, wasting dipsticks, cleaning up spilled urine, or running out to practice late with partial data. The system automatically assesses the hydration status of an athlete and sends data directly to the staff, or to the team’s athlete management software system (AMS).
The system was designed to not only save valuable time and labor hours for a high performance staff, it also integrates hydration data seamlessly within a team’s recovery and wellness data. This means that the staff has actionable hydration data on athletes up to several hours before training or practice begins, giving them opportunity to positively impact each athlete. Additionally, data can be tracked and plans can be individualized over time for each athlete to help optimize athlete fueling for performance and recovery.
Knowing that high quality hydration tracking data can be available in a timely manner means that high performance staff can no longer ‘guess and go’ when it comes to supporting athlete performance. The data from the Intake Health system is aimed to empower staff members to act in a timely manner with individualized approaches. Trends and individual history are important contextual factors to consider, and can be difference makers along the journey.
Perhaps a hidden benefit of the Intake Health approach is that hydration tracking becomes ingrained within the normal daily routine of the athlete. This allows high quality data to be tracked more often with greater consistency, but without the added burden of forcing the athlete to complete yet another recovery assessment.
“Invisible monitoring”, such as the approach of the Intake Health hydration tracking solution, is a more frequently discussed topic within high performance circles currently. Can the Intake Health solution help optimize other athlete monitoring solutions by reducing demands on the athlete and staff alike?