How the U.S. women’s cycling team rode analytics to a silver medal

Athletes long have applied science, data and technology to their training regimens, using knowledge about nutrition, conditioning and even physics to improve how they perform.

The advent of big data and analytics in recent years has given individual athletes, trainers and organized teams powerful new tools to tweak performance in unprecedented ways. Adoption curves being what they are, not all athletes or teams currently are taking advantage of analytics, but those that are usually have successful stories to tell.

One excellent example comes from Bernard Marr, author of “Data: Using Smart Big Data, Analytics and Metrics To Make Better Decisions and Improve Performance.” In a blog post, Marr writes about how the U.S. women’s cycling team harnessed analytics to “rise from underdogs to silver medallists at the 2012 London Olympic Games.”

The team hired Sky Christopherson — a sprint cycling world record holder and former Olympic cyclist who founded Optimized Athlete, a company that developed software to combine wearable digital health technology with big data analysis for Olympic training — to get it ready for the London games.

Christopherson was the right person for the job. As Marr writes, “He put together a set of sophisticated data-capture and monitoring techniques to record every aspect affecting the women athletes’ performance, including diet, sleep patterns, environment and training intensity.”

That was the good news. The bad news was that the data were “growing at an unmanageable rate,” according to Marr.

So Christopherson did what any smart manager should do: He found a way to scale his data program. The former Olympian hired Datameer, a data analytics and visualization company in San Francisco. Marr quotes Christopherson: “They came back with some really exciting results – some connections that we hadn’t seen before. How diet, training and environment all influence each other – everything is interconnected and you can really see that in the data.”

The really exciting results came in the Games, when a team of “mutts” with no budget (sound familiar?), representing a country whose men’s team was banned because of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, rode its way to a silver medal.

Here’s the trailer for a documentary of the U.S. women’s team’s journey to London. (Personal Gold: An Underdog’s Story, currently is on a screening tour through the U.S.)

For enterprises, there are two major takeaways from the 2012 U.S. women’s cycling team. The first is that data analytics, properly applied, can improve individual performance, which makes achieving team goals much more likely.

The second is that data programs must be managed. Christopherson knew he needed better tools to effectively leverage the data Optimized Athlete was collecting from the cyclists, so he made it happen. The results — the first U.S. women’s track cycling medal in more than two decades — speak for themselves.

Then again, results always do.

Is your enterprise using analytics to improve performance?

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