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Sports Physics: Using Simulation to Predict Sports Injury and Design Protective Gear

Many sports utilize protective equipment to help athletes prevent injury, from boxing headgear and gloves, to football (soccer) shin pads, and less obvious cases like the padding in a marathon runner’s shoes. As competition becomes more and more heated, sports science has turned to simulation to understand the nature of injuries and expertly design protective equipment without sacrificing performance.

Similar to how automakers use simulated crash test dummies in their vehicle safety testing, sports science uses enhanced human surrogate models in their sports injury, sports safety, and personal protective equipment (PPE) research. This allows them to capture accurate loading conditions and biological response data and run thousands of iterations of test scenarios to optimize the PPE to counteract the injurious loads. Using computer models, they can capture the athlete’s response to impact, including how forces effect the interacting tissue systems and bone structures within the body. 

A leading technology for automotive occupant safety, Simcenter MadymoTM by Siemens, is also used in many sports impact studies. Using the same biomechanical models used in vehicle crash testing, Simcenter Madymo allows sports scientists to determine short- and long-term effects of collisions, optimize protective headgear and body pads, and even optimize friction of artificial grass to reduce the risk of injury on the playing field. Altair customers can access Simcenter Madymo through the Altair Partner Alliance.

heading football head response simulation
Biomechanics of football heading and head response simulated with Simcenter Madymo. Source: British Journal of Sports Medicine

The Sports Technology Institute (STI) at Loughborough University is one of the world’s leading research groups in sports industry and the largest of its kind in the UK. They used Altair HyperWorksTM to virtually model these virtual human surrogates and simulate sports impact scenarios. The ability to discretize complex geometries is a key challenge associated with this type of research, and the quality of the mesh significantly affects the behavior and accuracy of the model.

scanned and meshed femur
Scanned femur (left) and meshed femur (right)

Using finite element (FE) modeling in HyperWorks, it is possible to measure many loading phenomena which cannot be measured to the same detail in physical tests with synthetic models. 

When considering sports impact scenarios, there are inevitably areas which experience localized high stresses and element deformations, both as a function of features in the geometries (e.g. bony protrusions) or the impact location. Consequently, mesh biasing is often a necessity. The enhanced control over such features facilitated by HyperWorks makes mesh refinements far easier to conduct and manipulate for further iterations.

Simulation of a ball impacting the thigh in Altair HyperWorks

STI carries out a wide range of research, including for athletic footwear, technical apparel, protective equipment, balls, bats, clubs, rackets, and fitness equipment. HyperWorks will be integral to future development of FE models and will form a key component of the surrogate development cycle. 

With the help of the latest in simulation technology, athletes are performing better and becoming more adept at avoiding injury, extending their careers beyond what was previously thought possible. Designing and validating the performance of protective equipment with simulation helps ensure that the only thing competitors are breaking is the record books.