Engineered Athlete

Using electricity to zap muscle pain has been a practice for decades, but more and more pro athletes are turning to a newer form of the treatment, Frequency Specific Microcurrent, to hasten healing. Traditional electrotherapy methods block pain in part by zapping nerves around the wounded area, but FSM actually speeds the body's healing capacity by mimicking the electrical currents that occur naturally in human cells. Terrell Owens (ankle), Donovan McNabb (chest) and Tracy McGrady (back) have all used it to recover more quickly.

According to researchers at Stanford, there's a new surgical alternative for tendinitis: your own blood. In the November issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine, scientists report that by drawing blood from a healthy part of the body, processing it to boost platelet content and injecting it into the blood-poor region of the affected elbow, doctors can kick-start healing. The result: a 93% success rate, equal to that of surgery … but without the knives.

To help badly broken bones heal more quickly, sports orthopedists and prominent surgeons such as Dr. James Andrews are turning to a new bone-grafting method called Infuse. Approved by the FDA for use in the tibia and spine, the process uses a naturally occurring bonebuilding protein called BMP that has been genetically engineered in large quantities. Its new form, rhBMP, is soaked into a bovine-collagen sponge and applied as a graft to the broken bone. The process triggers much faster healing than a conventional bone graft.

Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers on earth, and it may also be the best way to repair a blown ACL. Boston biotech firm Serica, building on research by Tufts University, has developed a procedure in which a ruptured ACL is rebuilt with a scaffolding of biodegradable silk. Serica says the surgery results in a stronger ligament than one repaired via traditional means (repurposing tendons from the patient's body). The goal: to reduce recovery time from six to three months. Human clinical trials begin this year.

In a study last year of 16 competitive cyclists and triathletes, researchers at UC Davis found that the specially designed Sport Beans from Jelly Belly Candy Co. were effective at replenishing electrolytes and vitamins. During four 10K time trials, the candy's impact on athletic performance equaled the benefits of sports drinks and gels; scarfing beans and water was also much better than just chugging alone. Oh, and candy tastes good.

The presence of AEDs (automated external defibrillators) on high school sidelines continues to grow. Following the deaths of four prep athletes from sudden cardiac arrest in 2006, Texas has joined Illinois, Maryland and New York in requiring all public schools to have the device on their premises. Even states without such laws are seeing a jump in the number of AEDs available to young athletes: More than half of Washington's schools now provide defibrillators.

Several D1 baseball teams and a couple of MLB clubs are trying new optical training programs to improve the visual skills of players. One such method, Vizual Edge (used by Tennessee, Georgia Tech, the Reds and the Royals, among others), has athletes don 3-D glasses, then click through a series of visual agility exercises to improve their ability to shift focal points and track small objects (like spotting a curve versus a fastball). Vizual Edge is also catching on with some NFL draft hopefuls prepping for the combine.

Turns out Lance Armstrong really did have a competitive advantage: It's called napping. A researcher at the Salk Institute has shown that reaching "stage two" (restful, not deep) sleep for 20 minutes each day reinforces the connections between the brain's neurons that control muscle memory and aid mental and visual acuity. This, in turn, boosts performance. As Golden State guard Jason Richardson said recently, "If I don't nap, I'll have a horrible game."