No 1 in this, too

No 1 in this, too


LSU collaborates with Pennington to change sports science. That teamwork rarely happens elsewhere.

By Sara Bongiorni
Sports-science research is accelerating inside LSU’s football program and changing injury-prevention strategies on the field in Baton Rouge and on campuses nationwide. Driving the research is a highly unusual collaboration among LSU kinesiologists, athletic trainers and scientists from Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Dr. Neil Johannsen, LSU Kinesiology, and Shelly Mullenix, LSU Athletics Department . / Photo by Tim Mueller
Dr. Neil Johannsen, LSU Kinesiology, and Shelly Mullenix, LSU Athletics Department . / Photo by Tim Mueller

This is not standard stuff. Coaches by tradition don’t want athletes taking part in time-consuming and possibly distracting studies. Universities may not want to see data about athlete health impacts like concussions.

But at LSU, researchers have become sideline fixtures. Pennington runs studies on athletes’ blood in its labs, and its researchers study members of the tennis, swim and soccer teams.

Football is directly involved with Pennington, with head coach Ed Orgeron pitching an idea for a study. Four of his players lived for 12 hours each in Pennington’s metabolic chambers because the coach wanted to learn more about their metabolic health and how to help them lose weight.

One new Pennington study considers the potential influence of sickle-cell trait on muscle trauma. Another looked at the impact of over-training on athletes’ immune function.

The studies require athlete participation that rarely happens at other universities. “We talk to people at conferences and the first thing they want to know is how we get access to athletes,” said Neil Johannsen, a kinesiology professor at LSU and member of Pennington’s preventive medicine team who is a driving force in the collaboration.

Johannsen and other researchers deploy futuristic technology to gather data about athletes. Sensors inside players’ mouths capture the force of helmet collisions. Drink dispensers in the just-renovated football operations building adjust sodium and sugar levels according to players’ hydration needs.

Wide receivers wear goggles to measure pupil dilation as they race for a catch while digestible electric pills track their body temperature. “Our main goal is to help the athletes,” said Nathan Lemoine Jr., whose job as sports science research associate is to facilitate collaborative studies—itself a highly unusual post.

Arguably no university athletic program has embraced athletic-performance and injury-prevention research like LSU. The New York Times describes an “arms race” for sport-science data at LSU and other elite sports programs such as Oklahoma, Alabama and Clemson.

The NYT put the Tigers out front.

“Few places have been as willing to experiment as LSU,” the paper wrote in a Sept. 14, 2019, story. “When the Tigers find something they like, a result can be a full-blown makeover.”

Research to address concerns about athlete health and performance has become a core part of athletic operations at LSU in recent times, a development that has taken place largely out of view.

The research started at LSU before the collaboration with Pennington. Head athletic trainer Jack Marucci began collecting data on football player collisions several years ago after noting that concussions spiked during summer training and its two-a-day practices.

Marucci used helmet sensors to record the force, number and direction of hits players experienced. The data from several years indicated that repetitive “micro traumas” of the intensive summer schedule made lineman particularly vulnerable to concussions.

The program scaled back summer practices to one a day in response to Marucci’s findings.

Marucci also shared the data with the NCAA, which in 2016 banned two-a-day practices at programs across the country.

“Our data was very compelling,” Marucci said. “The games were not the issue. It was the (effect of) repetitive hits of training camp that was being missed.”

On-campus collaboration between athletic trainers and researchers in the university’s kinesiology department began about five years ago.

That’s when kinesiology’s Johannsen sat down with Marucci and longtime trainer Shelly Mullenix to talk about how they could help each other. Turns out, they could help each other plenty.

At the time, the trainers were seeing high rates of cramping among football and soccer players. They wondered how to correct it. Johannsen and his team put patches on the athletes’ skin to monitor how much sweat—and sodium—athletes were losing during sweltering afternoon practices to determine if that might contribute to the problem.

The data revealed the culprit: extremely high rates of sodium loss. The so-called sweat study prompted a series of changes. Food in the cafeteria got saltier. Trainers bumped up sodium intake in other ways; one tennis player was instructed to consume salty canned soup.

The study has had other lasting impacts, including the 2019 installation of drink machines that dispense beverages with more or less sodium depending on athletes’ nutritional needs.

Bringing in Pennington was the next step after the sweat study. Its sport-science assets include 3D body-composition scanners, the metabolic chambers, functional MRI equipment and the expertise of researchers in metabolism and other pertinent areas.

The joint research is applied research, with ideas for studies emerging from the real-world concerns of coaches and trainers. Findings from most of the studies are published, but the turn-around time for putting findings into practice is compressed. That’s because while basic science advances slowly, LSU trainers and coaches look for mid-season adjustments to better protect individual players from injury or illness or improve competitive performance right away.

“You need to be able to see long-term benefits of the work, but I also need immediate feedback on how to keep these guys and girls healthy,” said Mullenix. “We need to balance those two worlds—research and publishing but also immediate adjustments to help athletes.”

Mullenix heads a broad new initiative on long-term athlete well-being that includes mental health in her new position as senior associate athletic director of health and wellness.

Marucci views the holistic initiative and ongoing research as an opportunity for LSU to differentiate itself from other programs, one that may even aid recruiting.

“There are many guarantees in life and one of them is that you’re not going to play football forever,” Marucci said. “So we need to develop players to be on track to have a career and life after football.”

There are potential advantages for non-athletes in the mix. Pennington post-doctoral researcher Timothy Allerton is conducting a study into the effect of watermelon juice in boosting blood-vessel dilation, for instance. The findings could provide new insight into ways to control blood pressure.

To date, study participants in the kinesiology labs on the LSU campus have been normal, healthy people—regular people, not athletes. But Allerton is planning a second phase of research that will consider whether watermelon juice might help athletes rehydrate after profuse sweating. The findings could suggest watermelon be added to sports-recovery drinks in the future, something that has not yet happened.

The next phase of research will involve LSU athletes. “We will look for ways to improve their health and performance with watermelon juice,” Allerton said. “It’s an important question.”

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