A Numbers Game

RICHARD HOLMES laced up his running shoes to discover the remarkable work being done in the field of neuromechanics.

“QUANTIFICATION,” says Oloff Bergh with a smile. “Quantification is key. If you can put a number to something, you have a baseline so you can measure change and measure improvement.” We’re sitting in his laboratory surrounded by cameras, sensors, cabling and computers. It’s a set-up both out of place and somehow right at home on the sports campus of Stellenbosch University.

After undergraduate and then honours studies in Sports Science at the university, Oloff took a master’s degree, specialising in biomechanics, intrigued by a discipline that combines maths and physics with the simple mystery of how humans move.
In 2021, while he was deciding how to combine those twin passions, another
opportunity arose. Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Engineering was recruiting for inter-disciplinary master’s students who would blend engineering principles with other spheres of research. It was the perfect fit, which two years later led Oloff to the door of the Central Analytical Facilities (CAF).

Today he is the managing analyst of the CAF’s Neuromechanics Unit, one of nine specialised units – from DNA sequencing to nuclear magnetic resonance – within a university institution that centralises resources for a broad spectrum of research and clinical applications.

“It means you’re not duplicating resources,” explains Oloff. “As the Neuromechanics Unit, one of our primary goals is to support our researchers in conducting gold-standard,international-level research. And the only way you can do that is to have gold-standard laboratories and equipment. So we provide technical and analytical expertise to our researchers.”

And the laboratory facilities are certainly impressive. Across two studios is some of the most advanced movement technology money can buy, from a Vicon optical motion capture system – sub-millimetre accuracy makes it the go-to for research and clinical applications – to a Bertec embedded treadmill with a dual belt that allows for variable speeds, and independent force plates to measure the impact of each footfall. Throw in EEG and VO2 Max machines, and there is little in the way of movement that can’t be measured.

Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) track the relative motion of joints during running. With Velcro straps, fitting the IMUs is neither painful nor invasive. Surface electromyography sensors measure muscle activation. Our writer works up a sweat on the treadmill. Calibrating the Noraxon system before analysis.

The opportunities for applying neuromechanics are multiple, with applications as varied as orthopaedic intervention and prosthesis development to monitoring the impact of long-term HIV treatment.

“We’ve even had people from the university’s music department who want to look at possible musculoskeletal injuries,” says Oloff. “This technology can be taken outside, and in the past they have done studies on local orchard workers and the impact of their work on their bodies. It’s really all about quantifying movement from a biomechanics perspective. If we measure a specific variable and then the person undergoes an intervention – let’s say a hip replacement – and you measure what the change is afterwards, you can measure the efficacy of that course of action.”
The Neuromechanics Unit has been central to both fascinating research and ongoing clinical successes. While it’s helpful for athletes to fine-tune their movements, for clinical patients the impact can be truly life changing.

One of the most remarkable applications has been in helping children born with cerebral palsy. Working in conjunction with clinicians at the Tygerberg Physio Clinic, where Oloff oversees a second neuromechanics facility, the high-tech tools are able to assist physiotherapists and surgeons in planning treatment journeys for children with impaired mobility.

Using force plates and motion-capture systems, Oloff and Marisa Coetzee, a physiotherapy lecturer at the university involved in clinical work with cerebral palsy patients, are able to make highly accurate measurements of mobility, gait and muscle movements which help guide treatment protocols. “This technology is extremely useful for measuring accurately the range of motion in children and helps to give an indication of whether surgery will actually be of benefit to the child,” says Marisa.

Our writer works up a sweat on the treadmill. Calibrating the Noraxon system before analysis.

Although the laboratory is mostly used for clinical analysis and internal university research, Oloff is hoping to encourage wider access to the facility, which is available to the public. He has already worked with paralympic athletes and world-class endurance runners, but is looking to expand the reach within the Stellenbosch sporting community.

“It is the only laboratory in South Africa doing this kind of work with children suffering from cerebral palsy.”

“We want to work with more high-performance athletes,” he says. “They can come in at the start of their season for a baseline measurement and then we can track how they progress with training. We can also help coaches decide on interventions.”

“But it’s for everyone,” Oloff adds. “Just because some people are weekend warriors doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be treated like an elite athlete!”
People, in other words, like me.

I am, I’ll admit, an average runner. I started late, switched from road to trail, have had my share of knee niggles. And I’ve always wondered whether my self-taught approach to training was doing my body long-term harm. With Oloff as my guide, it was time to find out.

“Take a 10km run of about 10 000 steps,” he says. “Over those 5 000 steps on each foot, each limb is attenuating two or three times your body weight, depending on your pace. But if there’s something wrong, say your ankle is not contributing to that kinetic change, everything else works harder.”

Which is how I come to find myself hooked up to a brace of sensors and standing ready for Oloff to set the treadmill running.

Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) are strapped to each limb and my torso to quantify the change in angles between my joints. They also provide the raw data for the jaunty dancing skeleton – me, in my constituent parts – that appears on the screen above. Oloff clips in the final sensor and sits down at a bank of monitors to start his calibration.

After a session on the treadmill to analyse his running gait, Oloff talks our writer through the data, including the range of ankle motion, hip and knee flexion and the levels of muscle activation. Full gait analysis consultations include a comprehensive report, which can be used in guiding future training or physiotherapy interventions.

The treadmill whirrs slowly to life, moving from a gentle walk to a moderate run as the graphs begin to fill with data. Stance phase. Flight phase. Ground reaction forces. Myopressure rollover. Endless data points get sucked into the Noraxon system for Oloff to interpret in a detailed report.

In my case, there were subtle shifts to be aware of. An arm following an asymmetrical arc. A right foot that spent 8% longer on the ground than my left. Diminished flexibility in my left hip. Good news? “Your foot strike is very soft, very even,” says Oloff. And the electromyography sensors taped to my quadriceps showed that the muscle fibres were firing pretty much as they should.

While running is the most obvious application, it’s easy to apply the technology to other sports. A golf swing can be analysed to track what is impacting club head speed, while static bikes can be set up to track cycling efficiency. And with a simple analysis costing less than R1 000 – about a third of the price of a pair of running shoes – it’s an excellent way to stave off painful, and expensive, injury in the future.

I leave the laboratory a little out of breath, but a lot wiser about how my body is working when I strap on my trail running shoes. I have a baseline now and numbers that can be quantified. No wonder Oloff is smiling.

To find out more, visit tinyurl.com/neuromechanics.