These Are The Tests Olympians Actually Put Their Bodies Through

Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
In mid-May, I traveled to McKinney, TX, a city located about 40 minutes outside of Dallas. The city itself is modest, with a population of just over 161,000, but flat stretches of land run for miles, making the region feel desolate. You'd never guess that many of the world's best athletes and current Olympians stop there for days or weeks at a time.

The reason for their trip: The Michael Johnson Performance Center (MJP), a training and research center in partnership with Nike. The center was eponymously founded by the legendary Michael Johnson, a gold-medal-winning, world-record-setting Olympic sprinter.

I headed to MJP to undergo the same advanced athlete assessment that some of Nike's top athletes complete one or more times a year.

The tests are intended to identify areas an athlete can improve on to become faster and stronger than they already are, says Lance Walker, MS, PT, the global director of performance at MJP. Technology plays a pivotal role in this. You can only observe so much with your eyes, but with a 3-D motion-capture system, for example, you can see what eyeballs would miss. And while a coach can observe what your body does when you jump up and down on the ground, he won't gather the same information as a force plate measuring that same jump.

To be clear, I'm not an advanced athlete — far from it. But I wanted to understand the tech that's being used to help athletes learn more about their bodies and optimize their performance, especially with the Rio Olympics just over two weeks away.

My assessment revealed far more about my body than I could have realized by myself. Click through to see some of the surprising insights — and crazy gadgets — that I learned about while putting my body to the test.
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Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
Physical Therapy Screen

To start, I met with a physical therapist to discuss my medical history. Then, she had me perform various basic movements, such as reaching down to touch my toes and sitting up straight. She also stretched my arms and legs in different ways to test my flexibility and determine if there were any obvious weaknesses that could indicate an existing injury. This is a must for athletes, since even the slightest injury can make or break their chances of competing in the Olympics and, once there, winning a medal.

The Result: My strengths included my posture and hamstring flexibility, but I fell short when it came to hamstring and hip strength. These issues also became apparent in the functional tests I did next.
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Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
Functional Movement Screen (FMS)

The seven movements in the FMS test sounded easy when they were described to me, but proved far more difficult to actually execute. The goal of each was to find any asymmetries in my body — places where I'm stronger on one side than another.

The facility's trainers rated me on my balance and how successfully I completed each movement. My weaknesses and years of fencing — a sport that prioritizes your dominant hand, in my case, left over right — really came to the forefront. The movements included everything from a stability push-up to an overhead squat with a dowel (the white stick pictured).

These tests didn't involve much tech — that came after these initial screenings.

The Result: I fell over multiple times during the tests and ultimately scored a 13 out of 21, meaning that I'm far more asymmetric than I had realized. Why does that matter? The more asymmetric you are, the more at risk you are for injury.
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Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
The Foot Scanner

These small blue sensors were placed on my feet before I stepped into a three-dimensional foot-scanning machine. I placed each foot inside a hole in the top of the box-like, silver Infoot machine, which extended all the way up to my mid-calf. The resulting computer image provided precise measurements of my foot and heel breadth, instep length, and my foot size, along with a pressure map of my footprint.

Foot scans are usually used with Nike athletes to help when developing custom footwear. The data is especially important in determining differences between your right and left feet, says Jake Lawler-Schwartz, a biomechanics researcher for the Nike Explore Team – Sport Research Lab.

"People will sometimes feel that something isn't quite right in a pair of shoes and will size up or down accordingly," Lawler-Schwartz says. "But knowing the width of your feet and differences in width or length of your left versus right feet can help someone make more subtle tweaks."

The (Somewhat Odd) Result: My left foot is slightly bigger than my right. (So, that's why my left shoe always feels tighter!) That, of course, is not something I can fix, but it is something to be aware of when I'm looking for the right running shoe.
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Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
Body Composition Measurement

The InBody machine breaks down your body into a series of numbers, measuring everything from your lean muscle mass to your total body water. It does so using eight electrodes — two beneath each of your feet and two in each hand. The machine takes all of your measurements as you stand still, holding your arms out from your sides.

For an elite athlete who is trying to gain muscle in specific areas of their body, the InBody analysis is a must.

The Result: I learned that my measurements are far outside of the average of a professional female runner, but that was to be expected. At the time of the test, I wasn't running regularly or training at high intensity.

But the information from the machine, combined with personal reporting of my diet, resulted in one major actionable conclusion for this non-Olympian: I need to work on staying hydrated.
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Photo: Madeline Buxton.
Deceleration Stability

The deceleration stability test is meant to measure how quickly you can stabilize your body when you land on one leg. This is done by measuring vertical force on a force plate and tracking time. When I jumped on that silver force plate with one leg, the connected computer system could detect how long it took me to completely balance myself.

The Result: This was one test my body seemed well equipped to handle. While I felt fairly wobbly throughout, the data showed otherwise. I was able to balance faster than the average athlete.
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Photo: Madeline Buxton.
Gait Analysis

What you see here is known as the Optojump, a measurement system that can determine ground contact and flight times during a series of jumps, as well as during a run.

It works like this: There are two bars pieced together on different sides of the track. One transmits a signal and the other receives that signal. When your foot passes through, the signal is interrupted. Those interruptions can tell Nike's researchers about my reaction time, step length, and speed-stride angle.

The Result: When I kicked off from the starting blocks, the researchers saw my rate of acceleration rapidly decrease with every left step I took. They concluded that one reason for this deceleration was weakness in my left hip.
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Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
Speed Endurance Test

There's nothing electric about the Woodway Curve Treadmill. You power the treadmill yourself. The trick is to go as fast as you can without losing control, which proved to be much harder than it sounds. Once you start running, the belt beneath you picks up speed quickly, so you need to keep your momentum up — or you could fall.

I ran for 45 seconds at my fastest speed possible to determine my speed endurance, or how far I could run while holding my speed steady in that 45-second period. That length of time was important, because it pushed my body into an energy zone required for many sprint sports. The real turning point is 30 seconds, Walker explained, since that's when your breathing rate spikes and your legs start to feel heavier.

The Result: My speed over the 45 seconds averaged about 6.23 meters per second, which isn't nearly as fast as the Olympians on the wall behind me. Michael Johnson, who leads the pack, averaged 9.3 meters per second in his 400-meter world-record time of 43.18 seconds.
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Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
Sleep Study

Peeking out above my sports bra is a white electrode. It's connected to a wire that runs down to a second electrode placed on the left side of my body. These stayed stuck to my skin for 48 hours (I only took them off before taking a shower), tracking my heart rate and measuring how well my body recovered during sleep.

The Result: Even though I got a full seven hours of sleep, my actual recovery during that time was very poor. The average recovery value for a 25-year-old woman is 53 milliseconds. The first night, I clocked in at 25. The second night was even lower, at 20 milliseconds. It might seem contradictory that better recovery is indicated by a longer period of time. Isn't it better to recover faster? But Drew Little, a performance specialist at MJP, explained it to me this way:

"When you train or are stressed, the time in-between each heartbeat is very rhythmic and there is a consistent time lapse in-between beats. When you are relaxed or sleeping, your heart rate drops and the time in between beats becomes very inconsistent and has a lot of variability."

The longer the length of time in-between beats, the more relaxed and recovered your body is.

There's a likely culprit for my too-consistent, stressed heartbeat, though: I'm the kind of person who goes to sleep while watching TV on her computer and keeps her phone beside her bed — both habits that are known to make restful sleep challenging.
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Photo: Street Dreams Magazine.
I left MJP with an arsenal of exercises to help address my asymmetries and lower my risk of injury; a very necessary adjustment to my current sleeping plan (no more blue light!); and far more knowledge about how I move in general. While a trainer could have looked at me and done a general assessment of these issues, the tests pinpointed them quickly and with heightened accuracy.

For the professional athletes that come through MJP, time with their coach after the assessment is essential. It's then that the coach can put the information into practice to help the athlete perfect their performance, Walker said.

At $1,700, the assessment isn't cheap, but for athletes looking for gold-medal-worthy milliseconds of improvement in race time or adjustments in throwing accuracy, it's well worth it. For this non-advanced athlete, it gave me a more complete understanding of how my body works. I might not be an Olympian, but there are still things that I (and anyone else) can do to improve sitting, running, and sleeping on an everyday basis to live more comfortably and injury-free.

If anything, 48 hours of putting my body through all sorts of difficult movements and unusual machinery has given me an even greater appreciation for every past, present, and future Olympian — and this is only a fraction of the gadgetry and testing these athletes go through.