What have the sport scientists done for us?

Craig Sharp on the interface between knowledge and performance

In 1990 Craig Sharp, recently described (in the BASES journal 2002) as ‘arguably the founder of sports science in the UK’, was heading up the British Olympic Medical Centre, which he had co-founded in 1987. In 1992 he was appointed to the first chair of sports science at the University of Limerick and is currently professor of sports science at Brunel University, with honorary posts at Stirling and Exeter Universities and at the International Equine Institute at Limerick. He is planning to retire soon, partly to concentrate on his life-long interest in Scottish, scientific and sports poetry.

When I first entered the world of sports science at the University of Birmingham in 1971, it was the only British university offering a degree in physical education (later sports science) in Britain. Then came Glasgow, Loughborough and Liverpool. Clyde Williams was appointed to Loughborough soon after, and for some years he and I gave lectures to packed audiences all over the country on aspects of sports physiology. The trouble was that we had to give virtually the same lecture each time, as the knowledge base of each audience at the time was quite low. I well remember Clyde saying to me after one such double act: ‘Craig, we really should stop inventing the wheel every month!’

Because I came from another profession (veterinary medicine), in which I had had some experience of racehorses and racing greyhounds, and because I had been a national runner and a professional squash player, I was especially interested in sports physiology, which I took to be the application to sport of what was known at the time about exercise physiology. A lot was known even then, researched by such famous physiologists as Nobel prizewinner AV Hill onwards, in a succession which included Roger Bannister’s 1950s work on oxygen aspects of running. (Read about the latest research on how the body transports and uses oxygen here.)

Practical application of science

Clyde Williams, Ron Maughan in Aberdeen, Bruce Davis in Salford and some others were more fundamental scientists than I was. They sought to create a good base of published research, while I was more interested in the practical application of that science to competitors and coaches.

I had co-founded the Birmingham Human Motor Performance Laboratory in the early 70s, gradually persuading a series of national squads to visit for testing and advice. These included the GB men’s artistic gymnastics squad, the sprint and slalom canoe squads, the England volleyball squad, the GB judo squad, the GB women’s and men’s squash squads and some of the GB rowers. In addition, a number of individual international competitors from track and field athletics, tennis, shooting and archery came regularly, with their coaches, for testing.

However, until the mid-80s, most elite track and road runners went to the superb labs of Bruce Davis, Clyde Williams and John Humphreys (the latter working in Leeds), where the genuine expertise for running was concentrated. At the same time, Tom Reilly was making a name for himself in a variety of sports at Liverpool John Moores, as were Ed Winter at Bedford and Tudor Hale at Chichester.

Because of my involvement with Olympic squads (I had helped take 90 competitors to altitude train at St Moritz just before the 1972 Olympics and had been on the British Olympic Association’s Medical Committee since 1972), I was invited in 1987 to set up the British Olympic Association’s physiology laboratories at Northwick Park Hospital, whose Clinical Research Centre was one of the great medical research institutes of Europe.

My five years at the British Olympic Medical Centre (BOMC) coincided with an almost exponential growth in sports science teaching in universities throughout the country, and there are now some 150 sports science courses of various kinds in institutions around the UK.

From around 1990, when PP was founded, sport in general, but especially competition sport, came under a variety of influences all pointing the same way – towards an increasing use of sports science, first physiology but later psychology and biomechanics. In addition to the BOMC, other influences included:

  • The National Coaching Foundation, especially under the brilliant guidance of Sue Campbell;
  • The then British Association of National Coaches, under Geoff Gleason and John Atkinson;
  • Great athletics coaches such as John Anderson, Harry Wilson and Peter Coe;
  • Peter Radford and Neil Spurway with their ‘physiology and sports science’ course in Glasgow;
  • John Brewer at Lilleshall.

Gold standards for lab testing

These and other influences, including the BASES gold standards for laboratory testing and interpretation, paved the way for a massive grassroots increase in the application of science to sport. This was paralleled by the growth and development of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine, together with a major increase in diploma and masters courses in sports medicine in Scotland, England and Ireland.

In the old days, the governing bodies of various sports would send just their squads with their coaches to an accredited laboratory for appropriate testing. Now, however, increasing numbers of governing bodies employ their own sports scientists, who accompany the squads and provide even better liaison between the laboratory and the competitor and coach. At the highest elite level, some individual competitors employ their own personal sports scientists, such as the hugely experienced Joe Dunbar and Leo Faulmann.

What effect has this explosion of interest in sports science had on the sporting world itself? In sport in general, and running in particular, from club level upwards the level of knowledge is very much greater than ever before. Training has been put on a genuinely sound basis, as has nutrition and fluid balance before, during and after various events. Injuries can be managed and treated so that athletes stay in their sport for very much longer than, for example, in the Bannister days.

Professor Tim Noakes’ book Lore of Running, in its fourth (paperback) edition last year, is an unsurpassed source of wisdom on the science and medicine of running, which should be read by every runner from the 800m distance upwards. There are also excellent books, financed by the International Olympic Committee, on the major fitness parameters and on a growing number of individual sports.

But what of the effect on performance? By comparison with the mid-80s, British running above 400m, with the astounding exception of Paula Radcliffe, has not been notably successful. Partly, of course, this is because much of the rest of the world has latched onto very good training and sports science as well. But it is also because grass-roots athletics has withered away to a considerable extent in Britain, with the elite tending to cut themselves off from club events. For it is a sad paradox that an unprecedented explosion in knowledge about how to push the boundaries in sport has been accompanied by a parallel explosion in sedentary leisure pursuits (home computers, video, DVDs etc) that has made young people less and less eager to explore those boundaries.

Where do all the sport and exercise science graduates go? Before the second world war a classics degree was seen as a basic education, which few students ever thought to make their life’s work. Sport science degrees have, to some extent, filled part of that general educational niche. A degree course with a spectrum ranging from statistical analysis and biomechanics through psychology and physiology to sports philosophy and sociology certainly offers an excellent general education, reflected in the very broad range of occupations such graduates enter.

Nevertheless, a substantial proportion of those graduates go on to work in sport or fitness, while growing numbers are absorbed into the various areas of health science. But herein lies a real problem for sport science. University departments are powerfully research driven these days in order to stay afloat financially and attract good staff and students. But the grant money for research into sport is very limited, partly because it tends to fall between stools, being perceived as too medical for the science funding bodies and too scientific for their medical equivalents. Money is available primarily for the application of sporting disciplines to health and medicine. Not for nothing did the original British Association of Sports Science become Sport and Exercise Science and the British Association of Sport and Medicine morph into Sport and Exercise Medicine.

My dream of a National Sports University for the UK

Excellent and relevant research into sport is being carried out – but not nearly as much as one would like. I used to dream of a National Sports University – Loughborough, Birmingham, Borough Road or Stirling on a grand scale, where genuine critical mass would be achieved within the major laboratory-based disciplines of physiology, psychology and biomechanics. But I don’t know whether it will ever be realised.

What have been the main trends in research, and what are the outstanding challenges? In terms of running, physiological research has gradually been shifting towards more detailed treadmill testing for running economy, lactate thresholds and ‘lactate minimum’ levels. A major problem in assessing runners is that about 50% of the energy of each running stride is stored and released as ‘elastic energy’ in tendons and ligaments, yet we are only able to measure the other 50%, which is delivered by muscle. The development of simple accurate systems for measuring elastic energy would represent a real breakthrough in running science.

Runners’ fluid balance, glucose and salt requirements are reasonably well understood, thanks to Ron Maughan inter alia. Heat acclimatisation strategies are good, and there are some regimens to help athletes resist pollution.

Strategies to combat the effects of jet lag have been well researched by Tom Reilly; the principles of carbohydrate-loading are very well established; there is a growing research on creatine, and the ‘new creatine’ may well turn out to be carnosine, ingested to help the muscle cells buffer lactic acid internally, which is being researched by Roger Harris of Chichester.

From nutrients to supplements

Sports nutrition in general is moving on from study of the major nutrients – carbohydrate, protein and fat – to research into specific chemicals, such as glutamine to assist immune cells, and ‘branched chain amino acids’ to lessen central fatigue. And this is where one begins to enter the confusing realm of supplements, with all their attendant doping hazards for competitors.

Thus, the last 35 years have witnessed an accelerating groundswell of knowledge applied to sport. And in the 14 years of Peak Performance’s life there has been an exponential increase in all aspects of sports knowledge in general and running in particular – of which the very existence of PP is living testimony.

Although I began this piece by listing a number of elements of ‘expert input’ into sport, I have focused mainly on just one of them – physiology. In their varying ways, all the other elements have made progress which is as great, or even greater, and will continue to do so.

But when it comes to factors that enhance performance, knowledge is not necessarily the most important. A major factor in the ever increasing performance in running, for example, is that the more people who run, from all nations of the world (and some parts have hardly begun to compete yet) the greater the chance of throwing up what are known in statistics as ‘outliers’ – those freakishly talented individuals who set world records.

Horses, through a century-old breeding programme, have exposed their species’ outliers and are now being limited by physiology itself. But humans are still a very long way from reaching their physiological limits. We have by no means fully trawled the running genes of our species – let alone set about improving them!

Craig Sharp

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