FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Sacred Heart University’s Pioneer Performance Center (PPC), which caters to athletes who want to hone their abilities, has been expanding its services beyond campus borders.
The PPC is a top-tier, state-of-the-art facility in SHU’s Center for Healthcare Education at 4000 Park Avenue, Bridgeport. While several of SHU’s athletic teams rely on the PPC to optimize their performance, the center also offers high school teams and local individuals opportunities to take advantage of its technology for injury prevention and performance enhancement.
“One of our main goals for the Pioneer Performance Center is getting exercise science students experience with real-world clients,” said Jon Hudak, PPC’s clinical exercise scientist. This contact is through research done with SHU’s own athletic teams, as well as training and testing services the center offers to the public.
“We are preparing our students to be the gold standard of health professionals who work with an individual’s fitness status,” said Matthew Moran, the PPC’s undergraduate co-director. Moran’s students are working toward certification as clinical exercise physiologists or certified strength and conditioning coaches.
During the fall, six clinical students, one graduate student and two exercise scientists from the PPC performed field-based testing at Harding High School in Bridgeport. “These athletes had never had access to anything like this,” said Hudak. “They did a lot of fun tests using our high-tech equipment out on their field. The goal is to do this a couple times a year there to see how they are progressing. It’s a great way for us to give back to the community and help fulfill the mission of Sacred Heart and the PPC.”
The center also partnered recently with the town of Wilton’s recreation department to offer athletic testing and training to some of its sports teams. “We’re excited about this new collaboration,” said Moran. “We see these programs as real potential for growth. Teams are now more in tune with the idea of collecting data, as they see it being done at the professional and collegiate levels, so they see that as a potential area where they could partner. Obviously, this is the area where we have expertise.”
Collegiate athletic research
Students in SHU’s exercise science graduate program work closely with Sacred Heart’s Division I men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and rowing teams at the PPC. Chris Taber, graduate co-director of the center, also collaborates with the engineering department.
“We’re working on a large-scale project with the women’s basketball team right now,” said Taber, describing how players are fitted with wearable technology that measures their heart rate, sleep and other daily metrics. That data is analyzed to determine the effect of sleep on performance and injury. The technology tracks players in the long term, and the engineering team is using machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to predict performance, illness or injury from the data.
“We’re looking at how training, competition and athletes’ lifestyle habits affect them in the long term,” Taber said.
Graduate students also are working closely with SHU’s rowing team to test whether researchers are able to get the same quality data from new, lighter technology, rather than heavier, more complicated technology that has been used in the past.
“Some of the tests that we do with athletes cannot be done regularly, as they are pretty difficult because of the equipment involved,” said Taber. “If we can switch to a device that’s easy to use and lightweight, making the athlete less tired, we can gather data on the athlete’s progress more often. This gives more information not only to their head coach, but also to their strength coach.”
Each research-based student in the exercise science graduate program is assigned to a Sacred Heart team. “They work hands-on with an athletic team so that they get the skills necessary to enter the field when they are done,” said Taber.
Performance students who are studying to be strength coaches have the opportunity to work with high school, collegiate and professional athletes, as well as a wide variety of sports participants, through the PPC.
Open to the public
The Run Strong program is a customized group exercise program that lasts four weeks and is recommended for recreational and competitive runners. Participants will gain an improved understanding of their musculoskeletal strengths and weaknesses, and knowledge about their running form. They also will have a resistance training routine to continue at home. The $120 course includes a personalized running movement assessment, classes, resistance bands, a hi-speed 2D running analysis and a body composition assessment.
Golf Strong, begins February 11 and is recommended for recreational and competitive golfers. This once-a-week class runs for 10 weeks. Participants receive a Titleist Performance Institute Movement Screen, group exercise classes, resistance bands, professional golf swing analysis and a body composition assessment. The cost is $250 for the general public.
The most popular biomechanical services at PPC include BOD POD® body composition analysis, VO2 Max metabolic analysis and 3D motion gait analysis. It also offers exercise program planning, personal training and Alter-G training.
Training sessions or assessment for any of the Pioneer Performance Center services can be arranged through the booking website.
Moran said the PPC has an Alter-G treadmill to understand how it influences running mechanics. The machine uses NASA anti-gravity technology and a pressurized air chamber to reduce body weight artificially, which alleviates stress on lower extremity joints and muscles.
As an overweight person with sore knees who struggles on the treadmill, this writer was intrigued upon learning of the Alter-G treadmill. Wondering how much of a difference it would make on my own treadmill experience, I went for a session.
Users wear special shorts that zip into the treadmill, creating a closed bubble that inflates around their midsection. I took a moment to adapt to the pressure sensation on my abdomen, but it wasn’t uncomfortable for long. The machine lets users adjust from between 20% and 100% of their own body weight. I found 20% to be fun, much like I imagine walking on the moon would be: I felt as though I was bouncing with each step. After trying various settings, I settled on 75% of my weight. To my amazement, I was able to jog for 20 minutes at this level without pain. On a regular treadmill, I struggle to walk for 15 minutes because of lower back, hip and knee pain. It was far from effortless, and obviously I did not burn the same number of calories as I would have at my full weight—but I was able to do it. The next day, my muscles felt like I had worked out, but my knees and hips were not at all stiff or painful.
Many runners come to the PPC to use the Alter-G treadmill after injuries. “We have clients who were high-level runners but, because of severe accidents, injuries or neurological issues, they can’t walk fully weight-bearing,” said Hudak. “The treadmill is a way for them to get back to something they love, get that cardio that they are used to and improve their level of fitness.”
“When we think about the trifecta of what we are trying to accomplish in the Pioneer Performance Center, first and foremost is our students and their clinical education,” said Moran. “Secondly, it’s providing us a space to collect research data in a very applied setting. Third is the entrepreneurial side that enables us to offer our services to the greater community.”’
About Sacred Heart University
As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers nearly 90 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s nine colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Social Work; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; the Dr. Susan L. Davis, R.N., & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 387 Colleges–2022 Edition, “Best Northeastern” and Best Business Schools–2021 Edition. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theatre. www.sacredheart.edu