Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor enters the 2022 NFL season as one of the top performers at his position if he can stay healthy.
“You understand the risk-reward in the sport that we play,” said Taylor, who’s proven durable early in his career but is well-aware of the risks. “It’s a very violent game.”
Taylor has taken a proactive approach to the kinds of injuries that can derail a season or career — the soft tissue injuries to muscles, ligaments and tendons. He’s studied the physiological impact of his physical preparation of him.
And this year, he decided to put his money behind it as well, investing in a technology company called Strive, which is focused on quantifying muscle performance to evaluate the optimum workload, level of fatigue and other factors confronting modern-day NFL players.
“You have to really trust your preparation,” Taylor said. “… Everything that you’ve done leading up to the season and, as well, during the season. Doing everything you can to mitigate as many factors as possible that will lead to those soft tissue injuries.”
Understanding muscular performance is critical for running backs like Taylor given their reliance on their legs for explosion, power, agility and acceleration. Lower extremity muscle strains represent the No. 1 injury burden in the NFL, hamstring strains lead the way.
These types of injuries are not new, but they have become so pervasive and costly, both in terms of personnel absence and dollars spent, the NFL formed a committee to study the problem, along with awarding a $4 million research grant to the University of Wisconsin — where Taylor attended college — to study hamstring injuries prospectively in football players.
The study aims to identify risk factors for hamstring injury and reinjury in order to better understand and implement strategies to mitigate that risk.
Players know lower extremity strains (injury to a muscle or tendon from the hip to the ankle) suffered in-season are particularly devastating. Hamstring strains result in lost time for approximately 75% of players, and the variability among them (from severity to location), combined with their often-nebulous symptoms (such as tightness/stiffness/pain), make them particularly difficult to effectively treat. Plus, there’s an up-to-20% likelihood of recurrence after return to play.
Taylor has sought to figure out how he can avoid being another statistic. He met with Nikola Mrvaljevic, the CEO and co-founder of Strive. The company uses sensors integrated into compression clothing to capture muscle output during various activities and translate the data to graphic displays in real time.
Mrvaljevic is a former European professional basketball player whose initial inspiration for a product came from seeing a rash of injuries among teammates after a spike in workload during training sessions in the mountains. Given the lack of data available to athletes when training in the field, Mrvaljevic sought to quantify an athlete’s muscular performance in a real-world environment, as opposed to a laboratory or clinical setting.
He said it’s especially hard to replicate deceleration, followed by quick lateral acceleration — movements common in sport-specific training and in actual games — in the lab.
“That’s where our bodies actually push to the limit,” Mrvaljevic said.
According to Mrvaljevic, the sticker-like sensors capture electrical signals generated by lower extremity muscle activity (quads, hamstrings, glutes) as well as accelerometer-generated movement data. Combining the two sets of data then provides insights (such as muscle performance, symmetry and fatigue) delivered to the user’s electronic device to inform training and recovery. [The company has partnered with several universities to conduct third party validation comparisons with other medical devices.]
The first consideration for the athlete, says Mrvaljevic, should be “How are you moving? Are you more efficient today than you were yesterday? Are there red flags?”
For Taylor, the ability to see his cumulative data throughout various phases of training — both out of season and during competition — is allowing him to make adjustments based on the type of work he was doing and any associated deficits.
“If the first part of the month was a heavy plyo-speed portion of my training and the second half was a heavy power portion, when I’m looking at my information do I see a difference?” he said. “Do I notice any changes between my glutes, hamstrings, quads? Is there anything that’s off on speed days? When I transition to power, is my power coming more from my hamstrings for these specific exercises or more from my quads?”
Taylor noted he has worked on integrating this technology with football-specific activity as part of his training camp preparations.
“There’s nothing that can really prepare you for football like playing football,” Taylor said. “But if I can simulate what we do in training camp, those running back drills, those movements that I will be performing throughout camp, can I look at this data and see where am I lacking? Then I can communicate with my training staff to say, ‘Hey, these are some things I really need to work on to prepare for camp.'”
Taylor said he believes the Strive-generated data insights he’s utilizing to track his performance and recovery are his best weapon against physical breakdown.
“Availability is a huge problem in this sport,” he said. “We know the risk-reward factor. But if we’re able to have everyone out on the field, everyone available for the most part, fans are going to get a lot of great football throughout the fall and guys will be feeling better. No one wants to be hurt. No one wants to go through that at all.”