How do athletes produce better results and reduce their risk of injury at the same time?
14. November 2022
A unique research laboratory is currently being built at the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences. In the field of sports and motion mechanics, the “Advanced Motion Lab” is investigating the factors that contribute to athletes performing better and at the same time injuring themselves less. The project is led by Professor Dr. Steffen Willwacher, who has been conducting groundbreaking research in the field of motion mechanics for years, and has already worked with top athletes such as Olympic champions Usain Bolt and Markus Rehm.
Question: Since the winter semester2020/21, you have been researching and teaching biomechanics class at the University of Offenburg in the. What do you exactly deal with?
SW: My special area of knowledge is sports and motion mechanics. My focus is on the analysis of motion sequences and the resulting loads on biological structures (e. g. muscles and bones). For example, we ask ourselves why I can’t throw the javelin just as far as the German record holder Johannes Vetter, even though we are the same height. These and similar questions keep the sports and movement bio mechanists busy.
Question: As a scientist, what do you expect from the new laboratory in Offenburg?
SW: A great deal! We are doing research on the interaction of people within environmental conditions. How do different properties of the environments – the ground, for example – influence the way people generate force? The added value here is to develop a better understanding to enable the improvement of athletic performance, but also to minimize the risk of injury.
Advanced Motion Lab with Conica Track Testing Lab
Question: As far as the floor is concerned, you are collaborating with Swiss track specialist Conica in the lab. What is that all about?
SW: There is a larger area in the Advanced Motion Lab: The Conica Track Testing Lab. The running track there is 60m long. That allows for a sprint at full speed. To be able to research disciplines like javelin throwing, we can have nets set up to catch specially prepared javelins and balls. For the other disciplines such as high jump and long jump, mats are available to catch the jumps. All movements and attempts are tracked by many high-precision cameras. The technical equipment in the laboratory is among the best in the world. The fact that it specializes specifically in sports flooring research makes the project unique.
We find optimal technical conditions here, especially for researching the athletic movement of people on different surfaces. Of course, this is very much in the direction of high-performance sports, which we will focus on. In the future, however, we would also like to conduct research on surfaces for schools or recreational facilities, as well as work on the sustainability of running tracks.
Question: How do you gain your insights?
SW: We draw our findings from three sources. First, we can use excellent methods to study how people move on different athletics floors and the loads that affect their bodies in the process. This involves the use of 3D motion capture. At the same time, we have force-measuring plates embedded in the floor to measure the forces that are exchanged between the foot and the floor. With these two sources of information, we can calculate body metrics and learn at which time how much energy is generated or absorbed. This also helps us to better assess the risk of injury.
The second source point is the direct feedback from the test subjects. The sensory and movement experience of high-performance athletes is a very important source of information. It gives us information about how the products feel.
With the third (point) source, we are working on the development of test rigs. We are currently developing a machine that simulates the movement and force between the foot and the ground. This has the advantage that a machine can repeat movements very well – with humans, the variance between tests would be too great for an exact result. In addition, machines do not show signs of fatigue like humans.
Sport-specific running tracks
Question: Is this also about different surfaces for different sports?
SW: That’s another topic we’re looking at as part of our research. If you were trying to develop an optimal surface for each discipline, those surfaces would most likely be different. So, part of our research is looking at whether developing different surfaces for different athletic disciplines makes more sense for performance and injury risk reasons than continuing to develop the rather compromising “all-rounder” surface currently in use around the world.
Prof. Dr Steffen Willwacher relocated from the German Sport University of Cologne to the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in the winter semester 2020/21, where he took over the professorship for biomechanics and basic engineering sciences. In the process, the degree programme was expanded to include the focus on sports and movement biomechanics. Prof. Dr Willwacher has already won internationally recognized prizes for his research work. These included the 2018 “Hans Gros Emerging Researcher Award” from the International Society of Biomechanics in Sports. A decathlete himself and third at the 2003 European U20 Championships and German U23 champion in 2006, he has struggled with injuries throughout his sporting career. This was also a motivation for his research in walking, running and sprinting and injury reduction.
Conica has been developing and manufacturing innovative seamless flooring solutions based on polyurethane and epoxy resins for sports, games, leisure as well as other areas for over 40 years. Conica is one of the world’s market leaders and innovation drivers in this field. The user-oriented requirements for technical and sports functional performance as well as usability while guaranteeing health aspects of the material itself and for the user are the focus of product development. Conica is part of the Serafin group of companies based in Munich.