WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The 7l1th Human Performance Wing’s Airman Systems Directorate is stepping into an area of science to find ways to improve not only Airmen’s physical training and performance, but also how they recover.
After watching members of special operations train during a site visit, Dr. Josh Hagen, 711th HPW Airman Systems Signature Tracking for Optimized Nutrition and Training team lead, began to wonder what their recovery practices were from their intense training routine and what was being used to help them feel physically better afterwards.
“We are studying a new space in human performance research called recovery science,” said Hagen. “Training really hard several days in a row catches up to you and the body is not going to recover as efficiently because you are getting a beat down every day. I’m confident there are ways we can be prescriptive about recovery based on your physiological status, so we’re actively pursuing the science behind this optimized recovery concept.”
Made up of materials engineers, exercise physiologists, research psychologists, nutritionists, computer scientists and physical therapists, Hagen and his team began researching physiological data to try to find ways to change that data.
Over the last several years, research was conducted using wearable electronics that directly measured what the body went through during training. Hagen’s team was able to determine how the body reacted to various stimuli from the time the special operator woke up, to throughout his training. The wearables also measured how the operator’s body adapted over time to the training.
Soon after, Hagen realized that the operators’ demanding schedules limited his teams’ research capabilities so he found a solution. In 2014, the 711th HPW entered an agreement with the Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati athletic departments to study football players training, recovery and performance over three full seasons to date.
“Elite college athletes from these universities are physically close to our special operators and we are able to have access to more than 1,000 athletes to collect data from,” Hagen said. “We can provide a direct benefit for the coaches and athletic trainers through our research, and directly play a part in optimizing the athletes, while at the same time collecting the data and developing novel analytics that can be transitioned immediately to the military.”
“Working with the college athletes is huge for us; we are able to gather the data to show that it does or does not fix you,” Hagen said. “The partnership with these athletic departments is very beneficial. Geographically, both schools are within an hour’s driving distance and we can test their equipment and wearables before the Air Force decides to purchase them on a larger scale.”
By studying the physiological data, they are able to modify an athlete’s routine to influence recovery in a positive way. Hagen explained that special operators are always training and have limited days off, so finding solutions on the recovery side does not take anything away from their time training. If they are able to do something at the end of the day, it can put them in a better position for the next day.
By measuring resting heart rate variability in the morning, they can definitively tell how stressed or recovered they are from the previous day. If stress is adding up, Hagen and his team can quantitate that so if they see their number is a certain way in the morning, there are things they can do to change those numbers so the operators can be in the best state to perform.
“It is always a game of staying balanced,” Hagen said. “You can be overly sympathetic where you are still in fight or flight stress mode and you have not recovered, or you can be highly parasympathetic, which means your recovery system has not kicked in.”
Flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulating Therapy (REST), is one next-generation recovery method that Hagen and his team have found both sympathetic and parasympathetic modification where other recovery methods typically help only one.
The Flotation-REST therapy is a sensory deprivation tank containing 900 pounds of Epsom salt in body temperature water, which gives the feeling of weightlessness. The flotation therapy users float 45 to 60 minutes once a week putting them directly back in sympathetic/parasympathetic balance.
While researching the benefits of using Flotation-REST, the team discovered that along with physical recovery, athletes’ coping skills to stress related to academics and athletics such as academics and athletics improved.
Hagen said if they did not have access to these elite athletes, they would only be able to assume what could potentially happen. As an example, Hagen stated within three months, his team was able to collect 200 data points from athletes both pre and post flotation recovery, something that would either take years, or not be obtainable at all from researching special operators alone due to the operational pace in which they train.
With so much incoming data, Hagen and his team began running into challenges of centralizing the data collected. All the information recorded from wearables and equipment was going to several different software applications, making it difficult to analyze in a timely manner.
To solve the issue, Hagen explained that his team developed a platform they named “24/7 – Combat Fitness System” to house, analyze and report all the data. This application will allow athletes, coaches and Hagen’s team the ability to look at an athlete’s results on a personalized dash board.
The 24/7- Combat Fitness System has been in Beta testing since January at Ohio State and University of Cincinnati, and will go live in August.
The Way Forward
Looking ahead in recovery science studies, athletes in wrestling, lacrosse, volleyball and soccer from The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati will be added into the research studies this year.
Hagen and his team are also currently working on an agreement with a team from the National Football League.
“This team is incredibly forward thinking in all things recovery,” Hagen said. “But there are even more cutting-edge things that are out there constantly popping up that we want to do some science on. They are moving forward with these great technologies, and we are able to lead the data analytics to determine the effectiveness of the recovery. This allows the team to firmly understand the data, while giving us the answers that we’re looking for.”
Other methods of recovery that are being considered to study are yoga for breathing control, infrared light therapy to help decrease chronic pain and inflammation, and cryotherapy, low temperature therapy for tissue repair.
"By collecting the data from testing wearables and equipment, we can predict performance, augment training and improve recovery,” Hagen said. “Our goal is to help decrease injuries and extend careers for our Airmen.”