Better, faster, stronger: Human Performance Lab tests, expands cadets' strength, techniques

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Academy athletes may think they're working their muscles to the max at 7,200 feet, but it's not until they train in the hyperoxic tent at the Academy's Human Performance Lab where their physical limits are put to the test.

The lab's latest technology allows athletes, cadets and active-duty Airmen the ability to push their bodies to 100 percent, in a hyperoxic tent, where their oxygen supply is increased, lowering the altitude while they train on the treadmill.

"You can't push an athlete here like you can at sea level," said Lt. Col. Michael Zupan, director the Academy's Human Performance Lab. "At sea level, oxygen is more readily available. During workouts at this altitude, there is a limitation of the cardiovascular system."

Zupan said they conduct interval training in the tent where participants, such as a football player, will sprint anywhere from three to 45 seconds and an endurance athlete will run for about an hour.

"For an endurance athlete, they may be able to run half a mile to one mile faster than they would on another treadmill," Zupan said. "In the tent we can train at a higher intensity and get better training in a short amount of time."

Zupan said they can also lower oxygen intake, by infusing nitrogen into the tent, lowering the oxygen concentration from 21 percent (at 7,200 ft.) to 10 percent (about 18,000 ft.).

"You can walk in there and it'll feel like you're getting to the top of Mount Everest," Zupan said. "It's a very unique machine."

Zupan said the lab works with 24-27 athletic teams here, helping cadets improve their athletic and individual performance. They include sports vision training, VO2max testing (to measure cardiovascular endurance), Wingate testing (to test human power) and Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry testing (to determine fat mass and lean body mass).

"If we can design something specific, and try to replicate what athletes will be doing on the field or on the court, then we're going to get better results and have a better training effect from the test, helping coaches determine what they need to have their athletes do."

Participants can also train on a human-powered treadmill, known as a force treadmill, used to simulate activities of a combat controller or for athletes participating in stop-and-go sports such as soccer, lacrosse, tennis and basketball.

"There's no platform on the treadmill, so it's less stress on the body, and cadets wear a belt to stay in place," Zupan said. "It features a potentiometer, where we can increase the load anywhere from zero, where it's free willing all the way up to 110 pounds. We put five pounds of load on it, so every step they're taking they're pushing five pounds. Instead of an hour activity, it decreases down to about a two or three minute activity."

Zupan said the purpose of the vision training is to increase participants' hand-eye and speed coordination, using binocular vision, where both eyes are working together as a team for accurate depth perception.

"For sports it's critical knowing where the ball is in space," Zupan said. "We have external eye muscles that help us move our eyes from right to left or up and down rotationally. We train those muscles not by weight lifting but through endurance so over a long period during a game, athletes don't fatigue as much."

Cadet 1st Class Melissa Cecil, co-captain of the women's tennis team here, said the vision training in the lab helps the team react quickly to shots when they're in a match.

"I enjoy working on some of the light up board exercises that help us with our hand-eye coordination because that's a very important skill in tennis," Cecil said. "I think the vision lab has a lot of variety in its testing and evaluation of athletes."

Zupan said the lab also works close with the optometry clinic for cadets who fail the depth perception test for pilot training.

"The clinic will send them here, they'll go through the exercises on their own and after about 15 sessions, they'll retake the test and pass," Zupan said. "We've never had someone who's flunked the depth perception test and then trained here and not passed the second time around."

The lab can also determine someone's resting metabolic rate, pinpointing the number of calories an individual burns when they're resting.

"We're able to determine what their calorie intake would be if they're resting for 24 hours and calculate the bare minimum we'd allow someone to cut calories down to," Zupan said. "We have a lot of cadets that come in here trying to lose or gain weight. There are several places in the country that use the machine to create diets."

The lab is expanding its research on the Air Force's 1.5-mile fitness run. The lab conducted a study two years ago comparing the run at 7,200 feet versus the same run at sea level and submitted their results to the Air Force Fitness Office.

"We found a 30-second difference between 7,200 feet and sea level, and are now repeating the study to compare altitudes in-between," Zupan said.

The lab is open five days a week from 7 a.m. - 6 p.m. and is located in the Cadet Gym. It's run by three full-time staff members in the Academy's Athletic Department and by interns from across the country.

"We're one of the few labs integrating into the athletic department which is unique," Zupan said. "Most other human performance labs at universities are used for thesis or dissertation research, not actual, practical application. Our coaches here are getting state-of-the-art education and a lot of coaches at the Academy are breaking the mold and saying, 'This is the way I was coached but what's wrong with it?' Here we've moved away from a lot of high duration, high stress training to more high intensity training with more recovery and rest days."

Cadet 1st Class Wesley Cobb, an Academy football player, said the lab allows athletes to work on skills they didn't know could be improved, anywhere from changing ranges of depth perception to quickness of eye reaction and movement.

"The peripheral reaction board in the lab has really helped me in football," Cobb said. " It's helped my peripheral vision pick up movement off to the side or catch balls right as I was turning around and not able to focus in as much as I should have."

The human performance lab definitely benefits athletes here, said Cadet 1st Class Stephen Carew, a player on the Academy's hockey team.

"The equipment and testing they do on a daily basis is very rare and extremely costly," Carew said. "As an athlete I feel very fortunate to have been able to utilize the lab."
Carew said he'd like to see a skating treadmill in the lab.

"They are a great tool for hockey players and are very common in Minnesota where I am from," Carew said.