Air Force doesn’t recruit many elite high school athletes, but Michael Zupan and his crew think they can make the athletes who come to the academy better.
Step into Air Force’s human performance laboratory, of which Zupan is the director, and there’s plenty to see.
To the right, lights blink like video games at the hand-eye coordination testing stations. In a room a little farther along, body composition tests are done.
To the left are treadmills and bikes with masks nearby — those stations test how much oxygen an athlete can take in during a workout.
All the way at the end of the room is the oxygen room, which simulates the air conditions about 5,000 feet or so closer to sea level than the academy.
If you’re lucky Zupan will let you try on the strobe glasses, which look like designer sunglasses but, once they’re put on, make the room seem like a nightclub as the lenses flash a steady light to the eyes.
There’s a method to all these toys in the lab. More schools are catching up to some of the technology used in this room, but Air Force is still in the minority of Division I athletic programs that have a program similar to this.
“We can help every athlete,” Zupan said.
Zupan explains the benefits of the various programs in the lab to all of Air Force’s coaches. Those who run the lab can tailor most of the stations’ workouts to cater to each sport. Zupan said about 20 of Air Force’s 27 varsity teams use at least some parts of the facility.
“The lab has been an important part of the development of our teams,” Air Force football coach Troy Calhoun said. “Two parts that especially stand out are the vision training and accurately measuring body fat and body composition. Stamina and durability are usually proportionate to how lean you are. That’s key feedback our players receive at the lab.”
Coaches also get information from tests. For instance, the VO2 max test, which measures the maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can use during a treadmill or bike exercise, can give an unbiased view of mental toughness, Zupan said. The test measures endurance, and the measurements over the course of the workout can show which athletes are willing to keep going when they’re getting tired, and which bail out quickly.
“For us, it’s what they’re doing during the activity, whether they’re willing to push their body to the next level,” Zupan said.
There are athletes who swear by the results. Jacob Burtschi ended his Air Force basketball career as the school’s all-time leader in steals. He would use the hand-eye stations three or four times a week for about 20 minutes each time, which helped his peripheral vision, how well he saw the other nine players on the court and made his hands quicker to the ball on defense.
“I got a lot of swipes because of my hand quickness and seeing where the ball is,” Burtschi said. “Those exercises help with precision too. So I cut down a lot on my fouls but improved my steals almost every year.”
Ben Garland is pursuing a NFL career. The former Falcons defensive lineman spent training camp last year with the Broncos and spent the season on the military/reserve list. He comes to the lab as often as his work schedule allows, usually getting in about three times a week for vision work and once a week for running in the oxygen room.
Garland is surprisingly quick for a man his size, deftly swatting the red dots on the 10x8 grid as they light up. He said that helps him fight off offensive linemen. The vision drills also help his depth perception, shifting focus from the lineman in front of him to what’s going on in the backfield. By the way he speaks of the benefits of the oxygen room, it’s obvious he has studied that too. The tests and training differ from the usual football preparation, so he said football players don’t often buy into it right away.
“But give them a few weeks, and they appreciate it and see where it benefits them,” Garland said.
Garland convinced Reggie Rembert, who was a senior cornerback for the Falcons last season, to join him in the oxygen room for a workout. The workouts go against some commonly held beliefs about training. First, high altitude is supposedly ideal for training. As Zupan explains, the extra oxygen (it’s set at 25.9 percent for Rembert and Garland, which simulates a little more than 1,000 feet above sea level) helps athletes recover faster, and reach their peak performance. He says they can do about 10 percent more with the extra oxygen.
The lab became part of Air Force athletics about 15 years ago, according to Zupan. At first it was mostly the vision testing, used for training pilots, but to expand the scope would have cost a lot of money. Air Force decided against that, and gave the equipment to the athletic department.
Also, Zupan dismisses the notion of running long distances to get in shape. Garland and Rembert do three-second sprints, with 36 pounds of resistance, followed by 30 seconds of walking to recover. Once they’ve done that seven times, they switch treadmills, and one of them walks while the other alternates between sprinting and walking. These workouts are different for each sport. Some hockey players come in after Rembert and Garland and do 15-second sprints, to simulate hockey shifts. Soccer players do 35-second sprints. The sprints are more efficient than running long distances, Zupan says. Garland and Rembert sprint for three seconds because that’s the average length of a football play. Every angle is covered in the lab.
Zupan said he gets about two or three calls a week, from optometrists, high schools or colleges, asking about the lab. He said a few years ago he’d get about one call a month to ask about it. Other teams may be catching on to the benefits.
“Any chance I get during the offseason you will catch me in the performance lab,” said Burtschi, who recently finished a pro season in Germany.