Army looks to athletics for assist
By Tom Wyrwich (Contact)
Originally published 12:00 a.m., July 16, 2007
Updated 11:55 p.m., July 15, 2007
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — In a small, two-room laboratory tucked away in this massive Army base, military training is going to training camp.
Facing a debilitating trend of injuries, the military has turned to the regimens of professional athletes to revolutionize the way soldiers train for war.
The tests at Fort Campbell’s Injury Prevention and Performance Enhancement Laboratory could easily be confused with those from a Gatorade commercial — minus the lab coats and Derek Jeter.
Soldiers hooked to computers take tests similar to those the pros take in their training. Then the data from the soldiers is compared with that of the athletes to determine what changes soldiers should make to their training.
Ultimately, the data will be used to change the Army’s entire training regimen.
“We’re finally putting the science behind that concept that every soldier is an athlete,” said Lt. Col. John McGrail, division surgeon for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which is headquartered at Fort Campbell.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, funded by a $2.75 million Department of Defense grant, are conducting the study at Fort Campbell, and about 900 of the 19,000 soldiers in the 101st Airborne will take part in the study before the division deploys again to the Middle East.
Part of the division will deploy to Iraq in September, and the others will deploy to Afghanistan in March. Soldiers will be tested again when they return home.
The hope is that even in the next year the results from this study could save some of those soldiers’ lives.
“That was my challenge to them: give us short-term results even though they’re doing a long-term study,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the commanding general of the 101st.
Each soldier who participates in the study’s two-day program goes through a series of tests, all modified by the researchers to apply to the soldiers’ activities.
For instance, one test has soldiers pedal on stationary bikes as fast as they can for 30 seconds. The action, researchers say and soldiers agree, is similar to that of clearing an area in war.
Researchers measure the soldiers’ peak power output, which can be maintained for about only five seconds, and how well the soldier maintains strength throughout the 30-second period. Those results are then compared with those of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey players, who must use a similar burst in their short shifts on the ice.
We’re finally putting the science behind that concept that every soldier is an athlete"
— Lt. Col. John McGrail
Similarly, soldiers’ performance on a balance test is compared with a database of PGA Tour players, and results from a shoulder flexibility test are compared with a database of Major League Baseball players.
In one of the most important tests, soldiers jump from a step onto a landing area. The soldiers are covered with reflective sensors captured by cameras that surround them. By looking at every joint and muscle movement on a nearby laptop, researchers determine what the soldier can do to better avoid an injury. They can make that determination by looking at how Pittsburgh Steelers football players and Olympic track and field athletes, who have been trained to land properly, perform on a similar test.
Because the 101st is an air assault division, meaning its soldiers repel to the ground from helicopters, this test is especially important. But it also applies to other Army activities, such as jumping off of armored trucks or walls.
The challenge for researchers, though, is to specifically tailor tests designed for athletes to simulate military action. That’s why months of work went into studying the Army’s activities before the researchers started testing.
“We don’t train tri-athletes the same way we train sprinters, and we don’t train defensive backs the same way we train point guards because the demands of their activity and their performance are all different,” said Scott Lephart, the University of Pittsburgh’s principal researcher for the project.
“So in order to optimize them, we need to know specifically what they’re doing.”
The Army is making an important concession here: Its traditional fare of training, most notably long running, perhaps hasn’t helped soldiers as much as it can.
When Army doctors noticed a rise in muscle and joint injuries near the turn of the 21st century, they suspected soldiers’ training might be at fault. Those results were the impetus for funding this study, and the early results from the study have confirmed the doctors’ suspicions.
“Even young soldiers in their 20s, you can stress their muscles,” notes Schloesser. “And then you’re no longer building them up, you’re actually tearing them down.”
Capt. Kymberly deBeauclair, who is working with the University of Pittsburgh researchers, has been through 17 years of training in the Army and admits, “Yeah, I feel it.”
The results have shown that something as simple as a flexibility exercise using an extra-large rubber band could be more helpful to prevent injury than dropping and giving anyone 20.
ERIN McCRACKEN / Courier & Press Gordon Huang, a graduate student from the University of Pittsburgh, reads the data being collected as Staff Sgt. Tony Mulvaney rides a stationary bicycle at the Injury Prevention and Performance Enhancement Laboratory at Fort Campbell, Ky., on June 27.
The data collected from each soldier taking the test is compared to the same data that was collected testing professional hockey players.
This data then allows the soldiers to understand how to train better to prevent injuries in the battlefield.
All the soldiers who take part in the study receive a take-home packet with exercises that can help them prepare for war, Lephart said, and rarely do those exercises include push-ups, sit-ups or pull-ups.
“We are making recommendations that we call, in the sports medicine arena, programs that are more functional,” he said.
In the battlefield, muscle and joint injuries can put missions at risk. Staff Sgt. Tony Mulvaney, a 36-year-old from Lexington, Ky., who is about to deploy to the Middle East for the fourth time, gives an example.
If a soldier jumping off of an armored truck with about 50 pounds of gear lands improperly and breaks his leg during a mission, then his unit must decide whether to continue the mission or try to evacuate him.
“It’s a big difference,” Mulvaney said. “If they can learn to come down safely, then we’ll still have that person for our mission, and that’s a big change.”
For researchers used to working daily with athletes whose primary concern is earning more money, work at Fort Campbell is in an entirely different tone.
“Recently a soldier was in for testing, and we just had a short conversation,” Lephart said. "He said to me something to the effect of, ‘The reason I’m here is because the better I’m able to perform my job, the less likely I am going to be blown up.’
"That puts it in perspective. You’re not talking about shaving tenths of a second off a 40 time or winning a gold medal. … The consequences of their physical conditioning are life and death, not wins and losses."