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Heart Rate Monitors Fine-Tune Playersí Fitness

As soccer practice began one recent afternoon, each University of Connecticut player grabbed a puck before he kicked a ball. The puck was a small rectangular transmitter that attached to a chest strap and was worn beneath the playersí jerseys.

On the sideline, a wireless receiver sat next to a laptop computer. As the Huskies performed their drills, heart rate data for each player appeared on the computer screen in real time, both in block numerals, as if on a gas pump, and in the wavy, crayon-colored lines of a collective stress test.

For nearly a decade, UConn, a perennial power, has been at the forefront of using heart rate monitors in N.C.A.A. soccer in an increasingly sophisticated attempt to gauge the intensity of training and create optimal conditioning for its players.

Coaches estimate that 10 percent to 30 percent of college soccer teams use similar technology to customize workouts, help plan their lineups and substitution patterns, and rethink the hoary tenet that harder training is always the best training.

The aim is to calculate precisely that players are giving the desired effort during workouts and, just as important, to prevent them from overtraining and to limit their susceptibility to soft-tissue injuries that can arise from fatigue.

"Soccer is a great game, but there is very little science to it," said Chris Watkins, the soccer coach at Brigham Young University, which has used heart rate monitors for two seasons. "If you can find science, it gives players an advantage. Weíre much smarter in our training now. Fitness is not an issue. We know exactly how to address it."

UConn (17-3-2) is a top seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament and will open play at home Sunday. The teamís players, coaches and support staff say they are convinced that sports science, along with technical skill and tactical awareness, has played a vital role in UConnís success. One measure is that the Huskies have scored 21 of their 34 goals after halftime this season.

"I think weíre among the top 5 percent of the fittest teams in the country," said Mario Diaz, UConnís trainer. "A lot of times we break teams down in the 65th or 70th minute of games. We outrun and out-endure our opponents."

The idea of using portable heart rate monitors in sports originated in the mid-1970s with cross-country skiing in Finland. Since then, monitors have become popular in individual sports like distance running and in team sports like soccer, in which some players run six or more miles during a 90-minute match.

Long used in European soccer, heart rate monitors have gained currency in the United States over the past decade, most visibly with the menís national team, which earned international respect at the World Cup for its relentless, indefatigable style.

At the N.C.A.A. level, UConn has been a pioneering team under the guidance of Chris West, 40, the universityís associate head strength and conditioning coach. Previously, heart rate monitors also have been used in training for the Huskiesí menís basketball team; this season they have been introduced to womenís soccer and womenís basketball.

"I think it can be really good," said Geno Auriemma, who has coached the UConn womenís basketball team to seven N.C.A.A. titles. "The naked eye isnít always telling the truth."

A former soccer player at Humboldt State, a Division II school in Northern California, West said his interest in heart rate monitors stemmed from the fact that athletes spent about 90 minutes a week in the weight room, compared with 15 hours training and playing games.

"What you are controlling" in the weight room "is a small piece of the pie," West said. "So you take a step back and say, ĎIíve got to start understanding what the total stress is on them.í "

UConn uses the Polar Team2 monitoring system, a Finnish brand that costs about $10,000. After each practice, West downloads data from the transmitters and produces a report of each playerís effort level that includes: duration of training; minimum heart rate; maximum heart rate; average heart rate; and the time spent in various zones of elevated heart rates.

The report also details calories burned; a cumulative measure of exertion known as the training load; and a graph showing a playerís heart rate compared with his teammatesí throughout practice. Algorithms can predict the exact hour at which a player will be fully recovered from a strenuous workout.

Every morning at eight, West meets with UConn Coach Ray Reid and his soccer staff to plan the intensity of the dayís workout. One of the guidelines used is training load, which is calculated as a points system. In a typical week the targeted training load is 1,000 to 1,500 points. The exertion of a game is worth 350 points. So if UConn plays twice in a week, that accounts for 700 points; West and the coaches then tailor the intensity of practices around the remaining 300 to 800 available points.

These points often mean little to coaches, so it is up to West and his colleagues at other colleges to interpret the data and suggest heavier or lighter drills. A coach might decide to replicate game conditions. Or limit a certain playerís effort to keep his legs fresh. Or give reserve players a more strenuous workout to maintain the fitness of the starters. The intent is to maximize the playersí fitness level and to minimize their fatigue level so that they can expect optimal performances on game days.

"You can go long or hard" in training, West said, "but you canít go long and hard every day."

Pierre Barrieu, a former fitness coach for the United States national team, cautioned that heart rate monitors were but one factor in building a team and that, ultimately, deference must be given to the instincts of the head coach. "It can be a very useful tool, but itís not the ultimate answer to coaching," Barrieu said. "It can be dangerous, dictating an entire practice based on a computer."

Still, such technology is gaining popularity. At Brigham Young, players look at their heart rate data and energy output during breaks at practice. "They know their effort is being recorded," said Watkins, the coach. "They work a little harder. They donít want to get beat."

On occasion, Watkins said, he has used the data to remind a player during a workout that he is expected to be more active, to cover more space. "The numbers are there," he said. "They canít argue."

At other times, coaches say the heart rate data indicate that a player is overexerting himself and needs a breather in practice. "One of the great things about this system is that you are aware of that and back down," said Jesse Cormier, the coach at Vermont, who used heart rate monitors for the first time this season. "The heart rate monitor does a really good job in creating balance. It helps coaches be a little more rational."

Reid, 51, who has coached UConn for 15 years, won the N.C.A.A. title in 2000 without using heart monitors. He acknowledged he was skeptical when West, the strength and conditioning coach, first raised the idea in 2002 or 2003.

A "light bulb moment" occurred, West said, when Reid thought his players lacked fitness early one preseason. But data from the heart rate monitors indicated that the players were exhausted, not out of shape, having played the equivalent of seven games in four days during training.

"Obviously, weíre trying to be a little smarter and listen to the body a little more than we did 10 years ago," Reid said. "We still have our little spats about going long or going shorter, but this data and Chrisís expertise have made a big difference, no argument."

After noticing that UConnís performance tended to dip toward the end of recent seasons, West and Reid made some training revisions this fall: preseason training was somewhat lighter, players said, and there were fewer days of high-intensity workouts during the regular season. Some of UConnís top players were also rested for entire games, "which Iíve never done before," Reid said.

One of his most difficult tasks, West said, is persuading players to take a break. Chris Gbandi, the 2000 national player of the year at UConn who is now the universityís assistant director of soccer administration, said, "You donít want to show a sign of weakness, but they have charts and graphs showing you, ĎO.K., Chris knows what heís talking about.í "

Midfielder Tony Cascio, perhaps UConnís fittest player, said he agreed to come off the bench late in the regular season because: "We are all trying to get the best performances out of our bodies. Why not do it scientifically? Itís better than steroids."

In the preseason, UConn experimented with more cutting-edge technology ó vests that contained G.P.S. devices and detailed exactly how far players had run during training, and how fast; and tiny thermometers that were swallowed to record each playerís core body temperature.

"I joke with people." West said, "that someday Iím just going to be able to sit in my office and drink a two-liter bottle of soda and eat a bag of chips and be able to look at my computer and shout through a microphone like the Wizard of Oz and tell them what they ought to be doing."

 

  

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