UGent sports lab unites science and athletics


With its brand-new sport science laboratory, researchers at Ghent University are taking physical exercise to another level

Faster, higher, stronger

In 1974, one of Belgium’s top sailors locked himself away for days in a laboratory at Ghent University. He put himself into a dinghy – the typical small, single-handed boat used in the Olympic Finn class –mounted on a moveable axis.

Then he attached electrodes all over his body. Finally he started sailing like he was on the open seas instead of in a lab, leaning over the sides to balance the boat and steer it in the right direction.

After the training session, he studied the electromyography he had produced. It showed which muscles he had used – and which he hadn’t. He took the results home to adapt his sailing style.

That sailor was Jacques Rogge, now world-famous as the former president of the International Olympic Committee. Last week, Rogge was in Ghent for the opening of the university’s new Sport Science Laboratory; the lab is also named after Rogge, an alumnus and honorary doctor of Ghent University.

The lab brings together three fields of experimental sports science: exercise physiology and nutrition, biomechanics and fitness and health. The building, which has a tennis court on its roof, is brimming with high-tech, even futuristic, sports equipment.

Science in motion

One of the showpieces is a moving walkway built inside the surrounding floor. It’s full of sensors that precisely measure all the forces acting on it by a walking or running human. And unlike standard fitness equipment, the walkway has a split belt.

“That’s so we can measure the force from the right and from the left foot separately,” explains Dirk De Clercq, professor in sport biomechanics. “That’s important because our feet touch the floor simultaneously. By performing two separate measurements, we can record the impact on our feet much better.”

We’re investigating how we can use music as a medium to provide biofeedback to athletes

- Dirk De Clercq

De Clercq is experimenting with an exoskeleton – a device people can wear – that has pneumatic muscles to support the stepping of the feet. “We’ve already shown that the exoskeleton makes walking less demanding and thus more energy-efficient. An adult wearing it consumes 10% less oxygen while walking.”

Devices derived from exoskeleton technology, he says, can help people with severe respiratory problems such as patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). De Clercq: “A COPD patient might walk 15 minutes with the exoskeleton without having any difficulties breathing.”

The researchers at the lab are an interdisciplinary team, but the lab also works with less sports-minded disciplines from the university, such as engineers and musicologists. “Everyone knows that music and sport go very well together,” says De Clercq. “We’re investigating how we can use music as a medium to provide biofeedback to athletes.”

Many joggers, he continues, “have poor running styles – they often jolt too much when they run, causing injury. There is already technology to adapt running techniques in real time, but this requires the jogger to keep paying attention. So it’s not very effective. We aim to develop biofeedback that adapts the running style more naturally, almost unconsciously.”

Always pushing

The mantra of top-class sport is that it pushes boundaries. To use the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. So are professional athletes welcome in the lab to analyse their bodies, movements and techniques? “Of course,” says De Clercq, “but we don’t work directly with them. We provide expertise and equipment. The athlete’s trainer has to decide which results to take home.”

One of the facilities in the lab that will certainly charm athletes with an eye to the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is the climate chamber. “Athletes can prepare themselves here for warmer conditions,” explains training assistant Maarten Lievens. “They can learn how much and what kind of body fluid they lose. With our dehydration machine, we can measure how much electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, they lose during practice.”

And companies can also sharpen their talents in the lab. Kristof De Mey’s business card says “sports technology business developer”. De Mey, who has a PhD in sports technology, is responsible for communicating research done in the lab.

“We offer access to expertise and research equipment in areas like nutrition, footwear, camera technology and even gaming. Start-ups can come to us for advice and to set up innovative projects. The lab’s philosophy is that research leads to innovation and practical applications.”

Ghent University

Ghent University (UGent) is one of Flanders’ most pluralistic and liberal institutions of higher education, and its motto has long been “dare to think”. UGent is renowned for its research in bio and life sciences.
Latin - UGent was originally founded as a Latin-speaking state university by the Dutch king William I.
Nobel - Corneel Heymans, the only Fleming to have won a Nobel Prize, studied at the university.
Autonomy - UGent is the largest employer in East Flanders.

million euros in annual revenue

1 882

first female student admitted

1 930

Dutch becomes university’s official language