Tony Beltran Used Sports Science to Return From a Devastating Injury

SportTechie’s Athletes Voice series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. Recently, SportTechie talked to Tony Beltran about how technology aided his rehab from a serious knee injury.

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Real Salt Lake defender Tony Beltran was a mainstay of his club’s starting lineup for a decade until a devastating injury to his right knee on Oct. 15, 2017. A collision with Colorado Rapids’ Dominique Badji left Beltran with torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments, as well as damage to the posterolateral corner area of the knee. (Badji received a yellow card.) He had two operations five weeks apart to reconstruct his knee.

Beltran starred in his college career at UCLA, was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, and has three caps for the senior U.S. national team. He has not played competitively since his injury, although he told SportTechie three weeks ago that he was nearing game readiness. In fact, he was upgraded from “out” to “questionable” on RSL’s injury list prior to its first playoff match against LAFC last weekend. After winning that contest, Real Salt Lake tied Sporting KC 1-1 in the first leg of its conference semifinal and will play the second leg on Sunday afternoon.

Through Beltran’s return from injury, he has used a variety of different technologies to aid his recovery, including force plates, AlterG Anti-Gravity treadmills , underwater treadmills, the NordBord hamstring testing system , and blood flow restriction.

The Injury and Surgery

“I’ve watched it countless times, and it’s frustrating to me because it’s a nothing play. It’s a routine play that I’ve done hundreds, if not a thousand, times over the course of my life playing soccer. Circumstances what they were, a millisecond delay this way or that way, I think maybe I just would have gotten away with a bruise. But the way it was meant to be was that my force colliding with his force, my knee just snapped because of it.

“Pretty early on, I had some frank conversations with our team surgeon, Dr. Andrew Cooper. He watched the play as well live—we were in Colorado—and when I came in for the MRI afterwards, he was in shock a little bit. Obviously I was in shock as well from the results because, like I said, it was such an odd play. He was surprised and horror-stricken that so much had broken.

“He made it very clear from the beginning that this was a real injury, but he also inspired and installed so much confidence in me. I’m so thankful to have Dr. Cooper in my corner because I really don’t think I could have done it without him. His bedside manner was absolutely phenomenal, and he did a ton of research about how to approach the reconstruction and actually decided to stage the procedures in order to give my knee a better chance to fully recover in the long run.”

Rehabbing With Sports Science

“A lot of times you put faith in, No. 1, the people guiding you—Dr. Cooper, our athletic trainers, the sport science department—and also the machinery, the equipment that we’re using. It’s never a good time for injury, but the fact that my injury coincided with us opening a new $80 million training facility, I’m very thankful to Mr. [Dell Loy] Hansen for that.

“In the past three years, RSL has put significant resources and invested in the sport science side of things. We used to have one strength coach, and he handled fitness, weightlifting, and so on and so forth. Now we have a team of guys that collect data every day, and are monitoring every inch of our progress and where we’re at and what our training load should be. The investment from the club side has been huge, and that goes beyond personnel and into facility and resources. There’s no better example of that than our new training facility in Herriman. Everything there is state of the art and tailored toward the modern athlete and the modern approach to professional sports.

“With the force plates and all the strength testing we did, it was very cool for me because I could see actual gains that I was making each week and that I was getting stronger and getting sturdier. I was getting strength back in my right leg and closing that gap between where I was before the injury to now or even where I am now in my right leg versus my left leg. It made everything tangible for me. It’s a useful tool to motivate an athlete as well.”

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Reduced Body Weight and Water Treadmills

“We do have anti-gravity treadmill on site, the best one money can buy. It’s quite an odd sensation. It’s ideal for the fact that I have multiple foreign cadavers in my body and re-teaching my joints, my knee, everything that I had to do this again, that I was going to put that impact of running on it. To be able to start at such a low body weight percentage like 20 percent toward my way back up to normal in an eight-week or 10-week period in which I did that, it was such a phenomenal tool. It alleviates so much stress on the body. It would be hard for me to imagine—not having done it any other way—that people used to just go full body weight after all this.

“Usually when you’re underwater, I think the body weight percentage is about 60 percent. This was something that I used for recovery more than anything. Dr. Cooper wasn’t quite as comfortable with me using that because there are less variables on the anti-gravity treadmill. You know exactly what kind of body weight pressure you’re getting. There can be a little bit more uncertainty underwater. I used that specifically just for recovery once I was able to run fully. I’d go for a swim in there or just a five-minute jog to offload the joints. People don’t realize how good it is for the human body to be underwater. For a professional soccer player, it’s one of the best things we can do for recovery.”

The NordBord Hamstring Test

“Man, that’s a tough one. A lot of these things aren’t necessarily fun to use—initially, certainly. But as you keep using them and you make it a challenge and the competitive nature comes out, you can see my hamstring score getting stronger. I rehabbed a lot with my teammate Jordan Allen this year, and we would always try to beat each other in every exercise.

“The science behind it is pretty cool. If you’re beyond a certain threshold on the NordBord, then your [risk] of injury goes down by a certain percentage, which is significant.”

(George Frey/Getty Images)

Blood Flow Restriction

“This one is particularly interesting to me. It’s something that our athletic trainers just became certified in about halfway through the year, so I didn’t get to use it in the initial stage of my rehab, but I did get to use it on the latter half. It’s actually ideal after surgery for preventing atrophy. It looks like a simple tourniquet, but I wouldn’t recommend people at home tie a belt around their leg. Of course it’s much more precise and scientific than that.

“Essentially what it does with the blood-flow restriction is it tricks your body into thinking you’re overloading a certain muscle, so in turn the body sends a ton of nutrients to that area. You can, from doing very low impact exercises, get the results of if you were high-intensity or heavy weight training. It sounds almost fantastical, but it’s a good illustration of modern science outsmarting the body.”

His Knee Now

“Today, I feel great. Really I do. I’m being blended back into full training right now and am weeks away from fully participating and being available for a game, which is obviously very, very exciting and very gratifying. As far as the numbers go, they’ve trended the way they need to, and I’m passing all the return-to-play tests that I need to pass to make sure my risk for injury is where it needs to be. I don’t feel quite like I did when I was 21 years old, but I feel good enough where I’m confident in my body again—my new body, my new knee. The way I think about it, look, I’m 31 but I have a knee that’s just one year old now. I can be homegrown all over again.”