Getting the read on speed

U.Va.’s clinic helps runners and cyclists return to winning form

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by Lee Graves

Samantha Williams had hit a wall of frustration. A competitive cyclist and mountain biker, she noticed last fall that her legs had started losing strength during races. She tried to brush it off, but her body forced the issue during an event.

“Shortly after the start, I lost power in both of my legs,” says Williams, who in May completed graduate studies at the University of Virginia. “The pain was so sharp that I was forced to abandon” the race.

Tests followed, and she consulted a specialist. He initially considered surgery for what seemed to be circulatory problems, but another option was worth exploring: the U.Va. SPEED clinic in Charlottesville.

The acronym stands for Strength, Power, Endurance, Education and Development, and the clinic boasts $1.5 million worth of sophisticated equipment. It serves runners as well as bikers, and it supplements research with motion analysis sessions for the general public.

The latter was an athletic lifesaver for Williams. Jay Dicharry, the clinic’s director, is an avid mountain biker and competitive athlete, so he was able to provide personal and professional insights into Williams’ situation. In addition, the equipment measured movement through computerized 3-D images, building a picture of where Williams’ muscles and joints were out of sync.

She had a muscular condition that was causing restricted blood flow to her legs. The clinic fit her properly on a bicycle, which improved the way she moves.

The session cost her $400, and she doesn’t regret a penny. “My visit to the SPEED clinic was the best money I have ever spent on myself and for my bike,” says Williams, 26. “It has truly given me hope that I will once again be able to race strongly at the elite level.”

Helping athletes, whether recreational runners or high-octane cyclists, fulfills a dream and a marketing niche for the clinic. It opened in March 2006, primarily for research and rehabilitation purposes in the University of Virginia Health System’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

But Dicharry and others saw additional possibilities. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we can give people — athletes — the advantage of this?” Dicharry recalls thinking.

About a year and a half ago, the clinic opened its high-tech lab to the public. A facility in Boulder, Colo., offers similar motion analysis for mountain bikers and cyclists. “But nobody can offer what we do for running analysis in the country,” Dicharry says. “We have a bunch of fancy equipment, and we know what to do with it.”

The clinic is housed in a bright 1,400-square-foot room with high ceilings. A treadmill, 10 elevated infrared cameras and several computers dominate the space.

Each analysis lasts about 3½ hours, and Dicharry puts together subjective and objective information to build a picture of each client’s biomechanics. He talks about the person’s medical history, fleshing out details of past accidents or injuries and present pains or goals. He checks for balance and stability.

Dicharry takes precise measurements, then tapes a score of shiny reflectors about the size of marbles to the client’s lower body — feet, ankles, shins, calves, thighs. Then comes the treadmill. While the client is walking or running, the cameras shoot out infrared light that bounces off the reflectors back into the lens. Force plates on the treadmill capture impact data. “The treadmill is one of two in the nation that allows you to get 3-D force data,” says Dicharry.

Cyclists put their bikes on rollers instead of using the treadmill.

A computer combines all the data so that Dicharry gets a three-dimensional, moving picture not only of how limbs, joints and muscles are moving together, but also of how a runner’s foot is striking and moving across the ground. “We can really see where things are working right and where compensation patterns have made things worse over the years,” he says.

Athletes with chronic injuries tend to compensate by moving in ways that create stress or imbalance elsewhere, and those can become ingrained over time.

Dicharry has seen athletes ranging in age from the teens to late 50s. About two-thirds are women. “The guys who come here are typically the ones who are crying.”

Dicharry uses science and insight to help dry their tears. “I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he says. “I’m pretty confident that what we’re doing is truly state of the art.”

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