Athos Q&A: Mark Kovacs

Mark Kovacs, Sports Scientist & Industry Leader

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Working on getting the most out of elite athletes is something every coach and trainer knows all too well. With the emergence of technology in sports, this has become a lot easier. Sports scientists, coaches, and trainers have been utilizing new technology to accelerate human performance with a goal to train athletes to perform at their highest level.

With technology, there are always those who are resistant and then those who are early adopters. The perfect profile of an early adopter of sports technology is Dr. Mark Kovacs. Mark is a former athlete turned performance physiologist, researcher, professor and more. In fact, he teaches one of the only sports technology graduate courses in the world.

For Mark, the focus is optimizing human performance by the practical application of cutting-edge science. He’s worked with hundreds of elite athletes both in the lab and in their sport-specific environments and is passionate about teaching them how to get the most out of their bodies. We sat down with Mark to learn more about where he sees the future of technology in sports going and to learn more about how he uses Athos.

Meet Mark Kovacs

What’s your background in sports performance?

I started as an athlete and then went into the world of strength and conditioning. After that, I then entered sports performance as a coach. Then, I transitioned to the research and sports science world. I have a Ph.D. in physiology with a strong interest in biomechanics, that’s my background from an academic standpoint in this environment. I have over fifteen years of experience across a number of different sports.

Why are you so passionate about sports performance technology?

Once I got done with being an athlete playing at the collegiate and professional levels, I always wanted to stay around competitive elite sports. I was really intrigued and interested in learning more about improving performance and also how to reduce injuries. Those were my two biggest areas of focus and it’s a passion I have. Every day I’m always trying to answer those questions of “why does an athlete run faster and how does an athlete get injured?” I’ve been trying to apply evidence and scientific principles to find those answers.

Embracing Athos

How did you first find out about Athos?

I’ve been following Athos for a few years as I’ve done quite a bit of research work in the EMG world. I was really excited when I first heard about Athos having a wearable EMG device that could actually give us a better look at muscle function in real time. It’s been about 3-4 years now that I’ve been following the company pretty closely. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the product and staff in understanding how this can be applied in a lot of different areas within sports performance and injury prevention.

What sets Athos apart from the rest of the technology in this space?

I think the biggest thing is it’s a unique technology from the standpoint of bringing lab quality research information to look at an internal load metric in an easy-to-use piece of clothing. This allows the athlete and the trainers to better understand the day to day, minute by minute fatigue profiles of the athlete as well as which muscles are working appropriately and which muscles aren’t. That’s really what’s so unique about the product.

What are the benefits of knowing muscular stress?

One of the biggest things with monitoring an athlete in any sport at any level is understanding when they’re performing well and when they’re struggling or starting to fatigue. Understanding muscular stress is one of the biggest factors in determining when a specific area of the body is fatiguing when they can’t perform as well as they should and then determining why that’s occurring. Muscular stress is really an internal load metric that hasn’t been measured up until this point due to the lack of technology. Now that there is technology that exists to measure it, it really opens up our ability as sports scientists to help these athletes make better decisions, know when to train harder or less and when to increase recovery or potentially predict injuries in the future.

Athos In Action

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How can Athos be used for Return To Play?

When it comes to Return To Play after an injury, Athos allows us to get a better sense in the athletes real environment about which muscles are working when and how much. Then also what the stress profile of that muscle is. That really couldn’t be done previously. Before you’d have to isolate the muscle in a lab setting and put them through non-sports specific tests or environments, where now we can have the athlete in an environment that is their training environment whether it's the gym, field, or court. In their real-life environment with their movements and their sports specific skills, we can really get a true sense of what’s happening when things are fatiguing and how close they are to progress to the next level in their Return To Play protocol.

What are the key metrics that Athos can help coaches and trainers monitor?

The ability to understand how much each muscle group is being utilized during a specific activity is a big one. Then you can compare left and right sides, quad strength, and utilization compared to hamstring and glutes. You can really isolate certain movements and provide feedback to the athletes in real time about which muscles are active and which aren't then you will be able to make training recommendations. You can make recovery recommendations which is something that is an important component as well.

What are examples of some recommendations you can make from Athos data?

We can set out ratios between left and right leg so if we see a ratio differential above a certain threshold, like 10% threshold, we know we need to make corrections. Then if the left leg is being utilized more than 10% compared to the right leg in total muscular stress, than I know we have an imbalance we need to correct. Based on that we implement exercises to work on it and then as the athlete is performing if they ever hit that target again where they’re above 10% we know we need to reduce volume. We do that because we want to reduce the injury risk potential there. We’ll use a ratio differential between left and right legs for example, and then we’ll use a similar ratio differential between front and back side of the body between quad and hamstring ratios. With knowing this, we understand that this has direct predictive abilities with knee injuries and some other injuries related to hip function so the ratio scenario is a big one. The other area of interest that gets utilized a lot is looking at the metric of how stressed the muscles get specifically during a regular training session. So we can start utilizing this for load monitoring. That means that we can understand how much the athlete is being stressed throughout a two-hour practice and then look to see if that impacts their ability to train and perform at the level we want them to. Just like GPS is being utilized for load monitoring, EMG is an area that is very exciting that is going to be utilized more and more for an internal load metric and a muscular stress metric as well.

In what settings have you used Athos?

I’ve used Athos in the weight room quite extensively. I’ve used it in the field with athletes throughout practices. I’ve also used it on the track when we’re doing different types of conditioning sessions as well as in their skill environments. For example, tennis or baseball athletes during game situations that we can monitor total volume and total loads in those environments.

How do you get the athletes to buy in?

That’s a relatively easy thing to do because you can show them on the screen which muscles are working and how. Then you can show the differentials between left and right sides and it makes total sense to the athletes because they may feel it. They may say, “I feel like I move better to the right, faster to the right” and we show them that they’re putting 20% more on the right side of their body over the course of these drills. They can then see the relationship between what’s happening and what they feel. Sometimes they don’t feel it, they feel like everything is the same but we see a pretty significant differential using the real-time biofeedback view. Then we also understand that we do get some proprioception and nervous system changes that the athlete has adapted to which may be a problem. So it’s all about educating them and highlighting the simplicity of what the info is telling us and then on the backend, we as coaches and scientists go into way more depth with the types of info we share with the athletes.

Future of Sports and Technology

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Will EMG ever become mainstream?

No doubt, it’s just like a lot of other technology. It used to be too expensive, too difficult, and too cumbersome. You use to need a highly trained specialists to analyze the data. As all those potential challenges have been solved, now it becomes easier to use and implement. Now the feedback and information are usable and practical. Just like in the past when heart rate was unattainable for the average person to utilize, this is where EMG will likely be in 5-10 years in that same type of environment where it becomes just as common as heart rate monitoring is today.

What do you see in the future for sports and technology?

I work predominantly in the sports technology world, I teach one of the few graduate classes in the country on technology in sports from a performance and injury prevention perspective. So we analyze just about every product out there in this space and unfortunately, there’s a lot of products out there that really don’t have practical application. I often think, how can these products become more practical and more beneficial to the athletes and coaches. To analyze information in real time and then provide actionable usable information that can change behavior is really where the technology space in the sports world is going. Better objective monitoring devices that can provide immediate feedback to help the athletes and their teams to make better, faster decisions to improve performance and reduce injuries is the goal.

What would you tell someone who’s resistant to using tech in sports?

The biggest thing for the individuals who haven’t fully come around to using these different technologies is understanding that what you’re measuring and monitoring with your coaching sense or feel can’t do it all. There’s a lot of metrics that we can’t see or measure without advanced technology and we can get info about the athlete that helps the coach and trainer do their day to day job more easily by learning the tech that’s out there. It’s the next frontier of effective athlete training and recovery.

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