The University of Kentucky, supported in part by a $4.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, on Wednesday unveiled the Sports Medicine Research Institute, dedicated to studying injury prevention and recovery and performance enhancement.
“The elite warriors of the U.S. military are expected to be at peak performance in extremely dangerous and unpredictable situations, and there’s no room — either financially or personally — for them to sustain a preventable injury,” said Dr. Scott Lephart, dean of the UK College of Health Sciences and founder of SMRI. “Our research with athletes both military and civilian is mutually beneficial, and it will result in strategies for injury prevention and performance for every walk of life.”
The institute occupies the space of what was the football locker room in the Nutter Training Facility.
“I’m most excited for our military that (SMRI has) an opportunity through the grant … to do research that helps our military. That is first and foremost in my mind,” said Mitch Barnhart, UK athletics director. “The fact that we get to help and sort of jump on the bandwagon a little bit and have the opportunity to figure out how it plays into student athletes’ lives here on our campus and how it helps us become elite … is really, really important to us.”
Becoming “elite” means staying healthy, Barnhart said, making the institute’s focus on injury prevention important to UK athletics.
“I think our folks walked away thinking it is a great tool in our toolbox as we look to recruit, as we look to compete and as we look to maintain a healthy lifestyle for our young people that are involved,” Barnhart said.
The program has been run for the last three years out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., where it works with the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. SMRI will continue its operations there working in the field with the Marines and in its smaller 3,000 square foot facility. But a number of its researchers will be relocating to Lexington, Lephart said.
The institute at UK has a biomechanics lab with 14 motion sensor cameras and floor force plates to assess efficiency of movement and stress on the body exerted by athletes.
During Wednesday’s demonstration, Erica Herrforth, an aspiring jockey in Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s North American Racing Academy, donned the motion sensors and hopped on a mechanical exercise horse to show how her form and fitness measure up on the institute’s motion capture system.
“If we were training a new jockey or someone who is in the jockey school here at BCTC … we could show her while she’s riding where some of the deficits are,” said Nick Heebner, associate director for research. “Is she going side to side? Does she have her arms up high enough? Do we see her lower end raise up because she’s getting fatigued? We can also pair this up with … heart rate to see how hard she’s working and kind of standardize a workout.”
Herrforth stepped on the exercise horse for the first time Wednesday. Mimicking a ride required a lot of effort and, as she progressed, her form faltered.
“I need to do better on my fitness,” Herrforth said of what she learned Wednesday. “Proper form on a horse is like 50 percent of the battle … you’ve got to be fit to hold the form.”
Heebner said the institute is also working with racing academy and Keeneland on “return to ride” protocols after a concussion and other issues in conjunction with its Equine Jockey/Rider Injury Prevention Initiative. Jockeys can use the lab setting to see how well they perform before getting back on a horse. The lab will have a full-size racehorse simulator in September which will help measure how efficient the jockey is on the horse and what kind of stresses a rider is putting on the horse and themselves during a run.
The institute also has a neurocognitive virtual reality lab to assess balance, reaction times and other measurements critical to assessing concussion injuries and measuring recovery.
“Essentially, as you’re standing on the device the platform moves and so you have to react to the platform and it’s assessing how stable you can remain,” said John Abt, SMRI director. “It’s adding a virtual environment to it. And, so, when you’re maintaining balance, it’s not just about using your legs to stand and balance. You’re using your senses.”
In another part of the room, researchers assess performance, endurance and injury risk factors with treadmill or stationary bicycle tests that measure oxygen consumption, metabolic rates, and physiological stress. How fatigue and sleep deprivation affect those measurements is also key.
Aside from the benefits to the military and the athletes, the data collected probably will influence the lives of everyday people, said Dr. Michael Karpf, UK executive vice president for health affairs.
“What we learn from athletes, what we learn from elite military folks is going to actually help folks like us in times of critical need,” Karpf said. “Some of the work that’s being done here on metabolism will be applicable to diabetics, will be applicable to folks who are fighting obesity. So, in many ways, this institute, and what health sciences does, fundamentally enhances our capabilities both in clinical care and research at the academic medical center.”