It’s fitting that you’ll see Suns players walking around with vests that make them look like Iron Man. Much like the Marvel superhero, the Suns’ training staff also uses technology to get an edge on its opponents.
For those not familiar with Iron Man, the superhero has a circular device attached to his heart that is the source of his power. Similarly, the Suns’ training staff uses spandex-like training vests that have a circular device on the heart that measures power.
After testing it out last season, the Suns invested in the Zephyr training system, which consists of a wearable monitoring device that helps the training staff gather vital data and information about players’ fitness levels.
The Suns even added a performance and recovery consultant, Tyler Wallace, to their training staff to oversee the new system. Wallace already had deep roots with one of the NBA’s most cutting-edge training staffs, thanks to his post at the National Academy of Sports Medicine, an organization that has worked intimately with the Suns over the years.
“There are three elements that we focus on specifically,” Wallace explained. “We monitor the physiological load - or how hard the heart is working during practice - the overall load and the intensity that they are putting out and the mechanical load. The mechanical load looks at the load on the legs and the prospective speed.”
The data from those three elements is gathered and an algorithm is produced that gives an overall training load from those numbers. From that, the training staff can deduce the overall intensity being emitted from a player and the overall effect of training on the body.
The data can either be gathered with the Iron Man-like disc that is inserted into a shirt on the heart, or a strap. The majority of the team prefers to use the strap.
“Once we get the data we make recommendations from a preventative, recovery, conditioning and strength standpoint with each of the guys so that we’re not overtraining in each one of those categories,” Wallace said.
For guys getting less minutes, the system is used in the weight room and on the court with the player development coaches to ensure that the players are staying in peak condition. It also allows the training staff to predict fatigue and cramping, which cuts down on injuries.
“I think it starts to quantify the assumptions that we’ve had, but I don’t think we’ve got it figured out yet,” Wallace said. “It helps to give us some objective data of how hard guys are working and then tailor what we do from a sports medicine and strength and conditioning standpoint.”
The technology that Zephyr brings to the table is pretty cutting edge. Originally, Zephyr was used by the military and has just recently transitioned into professional sports.
The Suns are only halfway through their first season of utilizing this information from practice. Meanwhile, during games, the Suns use a six-camera monitoring system developed by STATSInc at US Airways Center that measures and tracks distance and heart rate.
All of those statistics are assembled and analyzed after the physiological make-up of the player is taken into consideration. The findings will even surprise the players at times.
Sometimes a player will come into the training room and will feel energetic, but the data tells the training staff that the player is actually more fatigued than he thinks. Or the opposite will occur.
Also, the stats will reveal what type of cardio animal a player may be. For example, Suns forward Michael Beasley can endure far more cardio work than the average player.
It’s actually more of a challenge for the training staff to elevate Beasley’s heart rate because he can train for days. Taking this into consideration, the training staff will design a workout that is specific for him and his level of his conditioning.
“It’s not the same as a game or a practice where you’re starting, stopping, cutting and doing things like that,” Wallace said. “But it’s interesting from an overall perspective of how you can reproduce the same kind of activity levels in a workout. It helps with long-term programming and going into the offseason.”
Thanks to Zephyr, the Suns training staff has confirmed many of its assumptions in regards to training and fitness. However, with utilization being in its infant stages, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We haven’t discovered the secret sauce yet,” Wallace said. “But it gives more good data and we’ve got a pretty good training system here. We’re always looking for the next innovative technology, as well as tools and modalities that we can bring in that provide value to us.