Tuesday, 1 January 2013

2012 Olympic and Paralympic reflections part 2/2

In the last blog, I reminisced about my highlights of the Olympic and Paralympic golden summer of sport. They were all a little predictable and almost over familiar recollections. Here I want to reflect upon the rise of Team GB!

Once we got past the superb Glover/Stanning duck breaking 1st Wednesday (honour to be there - great tickets - thanks @Olympianben!), the most profound memory will be the unprecedented torrent of medals that followed. It was a delight that there was no sense of complacency or increasing indifference in welcoming each one onto the medal table. There was a fabulous excitement that built in the lead up to each one and how everything had to stop to witness every moment. The real difficulty was in keeping up with each and every one of the 65 Olympic and 120 Paralympic medallions, and of course that includes each of the near misses, the 4ths and 5th etc.

Team GB & Women's rowing break their duck

We have a simple formula in the English Institute of Sport (@eis2win) for increasing the number of gold medals won by Team GB, well actually it is just from the physiology team across NGBs and home country sports institutes. In fact it is so effective that I am reluctant to reveal it  such is the strength of association between this intervention and gold medal return. Well here goes! (Actually before I reveal all, I should tell you that the data are real, you can easily check the gold medal tallies from previous games, you will have to take my word for it, having worked at the BOA during the post-Atlanta period to post-Athens and the checked with the admin staff for Beijing!)

The answer to getting more golds - send more physiologists to work at the Olympics (holding camp, outside or in the village)! As you can see the relationship between the two (cause and effect, no doubt) is the purest of the pure, cleanest of the clean, tightest of the tight associations between the two. Unequivocal, I am sure you agree. Just send more and the bling rolls in. 

Do bear in mind that even if you don't want a gold medal you still have to send 3 and a half physiologists, equally if you want all 302 golds we need a rally to arms for an almighty 122 physiologists to attend the games (I am not sure actually whether they need to do any work, perhaps just being there is effective). Beyond the fact that I might have been a teensy bit selective in deciding who went was a physiologist and who went as a coach, (e.g. I officially went as a coach to Beijing, but I am claiming myself as a physiologist), the actual relationship would not be hugely weakened (so please do feel free to abuse this chart for any of your stats lessons or the like - much gaffawing will not doubt ensue - we have a right old laugh with our science japes don't we?). Of course, of course it is not sending the physiologists to a games that results in more gold medals, but what this does represent over time is a growth of the support system. You could rightly label the x axis, 'infrastructure' or 'investment' or 'experience'. Having seen the introduction of lottery money ushering the wave of athletes into full-time training, the birth of the institutes, the awarding of the home games and then ultimately the home games themselves, it has been a fast and relentless development of the system. We have had tears and tantrums as the system makes hard calls (often at the sake of peoples livelihoods) and the pressure of performing in the heat of the cauldron always makes some people go a bit doo-lally. But it would be fair to say that we now have a system that has matured with great experience, established strong relationships with sports and their coaches coupled with a know-how that is truly performance focused.

If I took a longitudinal view of the support system, in the history of the institutes (circa 10yrs), two disciplines have grown from a seedling to full bloom, they are strength and conditioning and performance analysis. The number of S&C coaches, that could mix it with the best coaches in the world's best coaches, 10 years ago in the UK was just a handful, but over the last two Olympic cycles we have seen the people and the potential unlocked from the conditioning teams. Creativity in movement patterns, critical thought about loading and ultimately the improvement of appropriate force generation has been vital in protecting and progressing our athletes performances. The latter (PA), born out of match analysis, has proved its worth through the evidential  recording and observations of performance that inform judgement rather than  mystical opinion and guesswork. I can't think of a sport that shouldn't have this as a bedrock of all support and coaching, and so it proved with our very own Stafford Murray leading a team of performance analysts at the games (there might be a correlation brewing...), providing instantaneous and holistic analysis across sports. 

Physiology has undergone its own transformation  from 'lab-testers' to 'response optimisers' (see previous top 10 blogs from the summer), but physiology support was established as an essential service from as early as the 1970's, whereas S&C and PA have blossomed more recently as performance drivers. So does the relationship between physiologists vs golds stack up, I hear you ask? Did we send the 15 physiologists that would be necessary to magic 29 golds? Er, no I reckon there were 10 in attendance, oh well never mind! Nevertheless, there was great satisfaction seeing some of the physiology team and the EIS as a whole getting some great recognition for their work with our Olympic and Paralympic medallists. So whilst the noble art of backroom support will remain an altruistic role,  there to help when things go wrong, there to innovate when the next edge is required, it was heartwarmingly nice but reassuring about its effectiveness, to see so many of the SPOTY interviewees give a thoroughly generous and gracious nod to the whole system of support.

London has left a lasting glow of euphoria on my soul, on support systems in the UK, on the Olympics and Paralympics that makes me wonder if it will ever get any better than this? Well maybe not for us here in blighty, but who wouldn't want to see the Olympics take a samba into the South Americas in 2016 or see how the wonderfully proud Japanese would represent themselves in 2020 (or Istanbul or Madrid for that matter, but my money is on Tokyo to be announced on 7th Sept 2013). The Olympics moves on, life-after-London is something we have planned for and to use it to stoke our ambition - to keep the flame alive after the cauldron has been extiguished. As Simon Barnes described we must return to the foothills once again and look upwards at the lofty zenith. This time we can climb armed with the knowledge and experience of having previously summited the highest peak.

Monday, 31 December 2012

2012 Olympic and Paralympic reflections part 1/2

In the immediate aftermath of the IOC announcement that it was to be "the city of London" that would host "the games of the 30th Olympiad", The Times journalist Simon Barnes wrote 'The Olympics are the pinnacle of sporting achievement and competition... all other sport lies in the foothills' (I paraphrase). There are of course many who would disagree. The fact that football stadia across the land fill with ardent supporters week after week, when viewed objectively does indeed dwarf the turnout of our summer of Olympic and Paralympic events. Yet somehow simple numbers do not represent the depth, meaning and majesty of the Olympic and Paralympic mountains.

From landfill to landmark

In very simple terms here's why; the zenith is only assailable every 4 years, therefore it is monumentally harder to achieve the summit. So victory is tumultuous compared to the weekly 'high' micro-doses. Also the vast pyramid of contestants underpinning the podium means that those stepping atop are truly abnormal in the population. In the nicest possible way they are the freaks of human performance!

In reality the London games were probably no more important globally than previous games, no more important to the British than the Beijing games were to the Chinese, no more significant than the Sydney games to the Australians. Yet they took the Olympic movement on in a way that was particularly apt for that moment in time. We are wrapped in a global economic mess, so the games could have annoyed if it were super-expensive. We (the Brits) have our own unique take on the world and life, that we were a bit unsure anyone would get, that was superbly summed up in a Sports Illustrated view of the London Olympics;

"Sydney: We're doing OK for a former penal colony, wouldn't you say? And we know how to have a good time, mates! Athens: We have a rich history, but remain vital and kind of relevant. Beijing: Behold our might! The theme in London was ... well, what exactly? We suspect you are familiar with our written word, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Rowling, our music from the Fab Four to the Coldplay? Or: We join you in gently mocking our quirks? Or: We lost the Empire but we still have our s$#% together?

I quite like the latter view.

I have a few highlights;

Firstly the BBC, from the very first few frames of the very start of the BBC coverage at about 7pm on 27th July, featured a statue with a beating heart and when zoomed in, showed one of the coronary arteries in the shape of the river Thames. I was only a few seconds in and already I was delirious with goosebumps from the fusion of the 'heart' and London - our city. The coverage throughout was just incredibly good. I will not moan about paying my license fee again. (I will come back to the BBC later).

The opening ceremony wasn't the embarrassment that many thought it would be, it wasn't even just passable. It was bloody good, whichever way you look at it or how cynical you get. Convincing the queen to agree to a bond sketch showed with straight audacity that yes we can 'gently mock our quirks'. The defining moment was of course the use of the next generation athletes to light the cauldron. What wonderful imagination that sparked the depth of forethought. Whoever came up with that idea - I salute you!

In terms of sport, my relief and elation for Jess Ennis and her coach Toni Minichello could not be surpassed. She is an extraordinary talent who reached a pinnacle at the right time. This was a very different support journey for me, having worked with the pair since 2005. We knew back then that 2012 was what it was all about for Jess and took a long hard look at what it would take to peak at that moment, being prepared to take less short-term gain for longer term benefit. This took great vision and trust from Toni, but with his critical and perceptive outlook that maximised the probabilities. You see, there is no textbook for heptathlon physiology and it took a number of leaps of faith to apply basics and some left-field ideas to not only the aerobic and anaerobic physiology development but more broadly to the whole system development, peaking, and optimising recovery in training and during the two day competition. 

There is always such excitement about entering an Olympic venue, even in East London!

A further highlight was the long-awaited achievements of Kath Grainger. I supported Kath up to her first medal in 2000, along with the formidable Batten sisters and the talented Gillian Lindsey. Back then a medal was a pleasant surprise having snuck the silver on the line. We knew something might be on the cards when I saw them in the Gold Coast holding camp and they had 'survived' an almighty training block courtesy of the relentless programme of Mike Spracklen. Nowadays, the rowing programme success is more sustained and ubiquitous thanks to the rigorous work of the current coaches and support staff. It was an overwhelming relief to see Kath and the whole women's programme finally achieve the success they so richly deserve.

The established superstars of Bolt, Felix (including the stunning 4x100m relay), Phelps did not  disappoint in their performances but also this time in their tussles with genuine rivals. But new and known stars rose to Olympic prominence in Missy Franklin, Alison Schmitt, Ye Shiwen, Ranomi Kromowidjojo (she should have got another medal for having the best name at the games), Alexandra Raisman, Epke Zonderland, David Rudisha took their chance. It is a fact that the BBC emphasised the attempts and victories of Team GB, but that these and other great successes of our international compatriots was featured so prominently is recognition of the embracing approach to broadcasting. Having been working at 4 previous Olympics, it is startling and frustrating at just how little of the widespread non-host nation, Olympic and Paralympic excellence gets shown from the host broadcaster. This could not be said of London, as you could delight in some juicy Cuban v Mongolian men's flyweight boxing match, or the Hungarian v Italy head-to-head match-ups in the sabre, or whatever took your fancy. As a sports fan you want to see the best not just the partisan view of the locals. I think the BBC achieved this.

Tunisia v Argentina in basketball preliminary - a cracking game

The Paralympics at last got the recognition, support and respect that it deserves and in its punctuation of the human spirit served up the drama of rivalries, controversies, head-to-head excitement that it has always had, but now it had the decibels to not only match but exceed the Olympic cheer. Albeit predictably, there is only one quote that affirms the growth that the Paralympics underwent in Stratford this summer and that is from the headline act of Oscar Pistorius, "There are a lot of people that are going to watch these Games around the world that are going to be forced in a way to see these Paralympics through the eyes of the people of the UK. And I think that is a great thing. There are a lot of people here that don't focus on the disability any more, they focus on the athletes' ability." Could the UK have offered a greater legacy for sport? I am not sure we could.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Top 10 applications: No.1 - Power to the revolution

I am a runner. Well I used to run. Actually I still run, but only a couple of times per week. But I used to try to sprint. I wasn’t very good, but I had a nice time trying! Nevertheless running has been my predominant sport.
This is my way of declaring my lack of bias toward what follows. You should also know that this isn’t written to be flavour of the month, the number 1 was decided many months ago.
Britain has become a nation in love with cycling and a nation of cyclists. Cycle ownership has rocketed as has membership of British Cycling. This has not been a result of heavily discounted bicycles, the development of an extensive cycle network (though this is starting to help), nor the shift in tectonic plates flattening Britain’s gentle hills and making the UK more cycling friendly. It is consequence to the rise in our high performance cycling athletes, their success and their subsequent popularity. We saw similar surges in participation with a Linford inspired uptake of sprinting and a Redgrave inspired generation of oarspeople, but not nearly on the same scale as with cycling. However, the overwhelming success of our track and road cyclists has driven a large wedge into the British popular consciousness. Sir Chris Hoy with 3 gold medals in Beijing was the stand out from the Beijing games, further recognised as BBC sports personality of the year and a knighthood. Team GB’s cycling golds accounted for nearly half of the total Team GB haul, without them Team GB would have come 8th, in the medal table. Such was the dominance that UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) initiated a number of rule changes in an attempt to prevent such a monopoly (you could say they were trying to help spread the love).

Athletes, coaches, directors and support staff in Beijing

Shortly following this was the irrepressible emergence of road performances with Mark Cavendish as a tour de force as the finest road sprinter to have ever lived (similar SPOTY achievement to boot) and now not only a Tour de France winner but 2nd place in Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, respectively.
Fittingly for this Olympic led Top 10 series, we are in such a glut of cycling results that this article will no doubt be out of date in just a few days’ time with the Olympics about to burst open. The point remains that cycling is now a major sport in Britain, and Britain is not only a major force but unquestionably at this moment in time, it is the strongest cycling nation in the World.
The rise of cycling in the UK has been thoroughly articled elsewhere, but in brief you can attach success to the intoxicating combination of extraordinary talent (and for the naysayers that crow that track cycling is not as competitive as track athletics, I am sorry but 2500 W of instantaneous power is butt-kickingly elite), specialist scientific and medical support, world class facilities and diamond strong visionary leadership. Much has been made of the latter and clearly without such an unremittingly torpedo like focus on all things performance, cycling would not have been able to extract such value out of the athletes, at its disposal. Without the sports-specific analysts, therapists, nutritionists, aerodynamicists, physiologists (of course) etc the team would not have been so well supported in their pursuit of excellence. But in my humble opinion, the absence of one cog (literally) would have almost certainly greatly impeded progress.
My conversion (sounds spiritual) into an applied sports physiologist truly began when I began work with the rowing team. Under continual question of “Are you going to make me go faster”. I quickly threw a great many pieces of knowledge off my boat and clung to the life raft of a few nuggets of 'first principles' understanding that could keep me afloat. After the Sydney games and the haze of gold tinted spectacles had worn away (please, please, please do not claim “we did it with X and they won a medal - so it must work”.  Present the thinking and the evidence or be humble enough not to claim it), I made a visit to my one time mentor Peter Keen and the British Cycling physiologist at the time Andrea Wooles (@findingnorth and who is now back oat in Canada). In late November 2000, we met in a converted room at the very back of the Alsager campus of Manchester Metropolitan University. Some way into the pleasantries, that were coloured with statements of ‘humble surrounds’, I asked if they had a lab, “this is it” was the reply about essentially a converted student accommodation kitchen. Somewhat surprised, I couldn’t sense that this was the doorstep to a new world. So I asked if they had any wet chemistry or gas analysis kit, “none” was the response. “This is all the lab we need” and Pete reached up to a shelf and plopped on the table an SRM* (@SRMtraining) crank. The ensuing discussion about the validity of ‘physiological’ measures did more to rock my thoughts than anything before (except temporarily for 2 hours of my 4 year old life whilst watching Star Wars thinking it was a documentary) or since.

SRM (or equivalent) meters and cranks on bikes during on of the most iconic scenes from the last day of the 2012 Tour de France
There are those single issue fanatical scientists that seem to be riveted to one idea, for example, that lactate testing is the be all and end all of performance insights, almost that sampling and reliability should be the blue ribbon Olympic Sport. On a similar note are those that don’t include a performance measure in ‘performance studies’ or on ‘performance athletes, probably because it is the physiology first and foremost that gets the high ranking publications. The SRM crank and ergometer, with its’ 8 embedded force transducers, at least for cycling, gives such a performance test through every pedal revolution. If you have power and torque data on tap then physiology becomes a second priority, because beyond technique, any development that aims to improve performance is judged by the power outputs performed and the resultant movement speed. It was SRM that led this market, it was SRM that British Cycling embraced and at this point I should flag up that other reputable brands are on the market, that I am not sponsored by them* and I would hazard a guess that if SRM hadn't produced power cranks, British Cycling would have found a way to measure in the same way. Sports scientist have used these cranks to do some light engineering  with their outputs of power and torque vs cadence relationships. Ostensibly they have served as the outcome measure for everything and anything in cycling, bilateral symmetries, caffeine ingestion, cooling, carbohydrate ingestion, etc etc,   but in the applied setting the test->intervene->re-test cycle is so elegantly effective and achievable in either the controlled laboratory environment or the controlled velodrome environment that it has become the bedrock of the detailed training, physical preparation and performance based decision making in the sport. It goes without saying that athletes need to put in the hard graft in the first place, and SRM’s don’t make a sport, and more importantly it is redundant without those with skills to delve, analyse, interpret and apply that brings data to life. Peter Keen, Simon Jones (@jonessimon2000), Andrea Wooles, Matt Parker, Scott Gardner (dr_asgardner), Paul Barratt, Dave Bailey, Jonathan Leeder, Esme Taylor (@esmet1985), Len Parker Simpson and Tim Kerrison to name the cast (as well as many others in other sports, private coaching systems and around the world).
When I first drafted this Top 10 list I had altitude and warm-up at the top of the list, but when you step back from what has been the most significant change in the landscape of British sport – cycling has been the most successful development of them all. An inherent part of that development is the humble force transducer that gets the living daylights smashed out of it by those hugely powerful athletes in Manchester, from which so much is trialled and tested. It has allowed the sport to springboard forward with the assurance of solid objective measures to such an extent that who knows if it would have been able to core out such a large space in the public’s affections without such a device.
So I put it to you that the applications of power, torque and cadence data of an SRM crank is the number 1 in my top 10 applications of sports physiology. It serves as the gold standard within cycling and maybe one day we will have an SRM equivalent in running, swimming, kayaking etc, because it is that level of detail with which sports need to be truly objective in their measurement of preparation and performance methods. It has done so in cycling and has played its part in changing the mood, activity and interests of a nation.
PS. As of last year I have a road bike and I absolutely love it, not least because I have lost 6 kg!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Top 10 Applications: No. 2 - Going Altius to go Citius

I should admit that even with my modest education in the area, that on at least 3 occasions to altitude I have made a horrible misjudgement of my own personal abilities leading to a heaped collapse of breathlessness*. Well at least I can’t be accused of avoiding experience.
Altitude has been a focus for the sports physiology community for many a year, prompted most keenly by the controversial award of the 1968 summer Olympics to Mexico City. The stadium sat at 2240 m above sea level (watch out for those who say that “all events were held at altitude”, yet they strangely forget the sailing, which was held in the Bay of Acapulco - on the sea, which I think it would be uncontroversial to say is as close to sea level as you could get!). For years the complexity of sending athletes to altitude, with high costs, lack of optimal facilities, difficulties with controlling control groups confounded studies and their conclusions. The scientific community would generally be happy with the conclusion: Altitude training improves your ability to perform at altitude. What they are equally right to, in the face of quite a varied evidence base, declare noncommitally - that it is not clear whether, or altitude exposure might  improve sea-level performance.

Time for some definitions, but these will be largely irrelevant to the message of the article and are defined properly elsewhere;
  • Altitude – ascending to a land height of >1600m, probably not higher than 2500m for a sojourn (essential altitude vocabulary - must be delivered with flamboyant hand gestures and puckering of lips) of 2-4 weeks – long enough to get a response (3 weeks) but not so long that camp fever sets in (6 weeks). This is often labelled as live high train high (LHTH) but could also be live high train low (LHTL) if suitable facilities are available for a quick journey down the hill for a quality session.
  • Hypoxia – use of artificial environments to simulate altitude by manipulating the percentage of oxygen in the air rather than the atmospheric pressure. Chambers, tents and mask systems are used to contain or direct hypoxic air to the athlete normally when they are at sea-level. This could be LHTL or intermittent hypoxic training (IHT) or indeed live even higher whilst your already training at altitude too.
For the purposes of the blog altitude and hypoxia are the exposures that act as the stimulus.
Of the 10 or so altitude training camps that I have supported, all of them bar-none has included a frequent dinner table-conversation of whether this altitude training works or not. The table would often be split into, ‘I really benefit’, ‘I really struggle’ and ‘I am not sure’. This is known as responders and non-responders. In this instance, when the training is hard the physiologist's primary role is to help the athlete survive. When the training gets tough (high breathing and heart rate, higher blood lactate response to given intensity), good measures of the specific responses will help the athlete and coach understand where they are stuggling and if they are struggling too much. If the athlete starts to tire, struggle to cope, get ratty, have disturbed sleep, lose their appetite, then the first port of call is the magic recipe of quality rest, nutrition and hydration as the basic reference point for recovery and fatigue managment. This is not to shirk the important conversations about adjusting subsequent training sessions though, but this is better performed with a few days of observations and clear evidence of breakdown, etither physiological or performance. The last thing a coach or athlete needs is a physiologist all to ready to call an ambulance in the face of a lactate 2 mM higher than normal.
With the predominant positive adaptation to altitude/hypoxia being blood based, specifically erythropoietin mediated red blood corpuscle neoformation, the bottom line in the process is the mass of haemoglobin in the body (relative or absolute).
Classic responder and non-responder scatter after a a block of live high train low

Optimised by the German based group of Walter Schmidt and Nicole Prommer and tweaked by Chris Gore, David Martin and Laura Garvican at the AIS, the measurement of Hb mass through a carbon monoxide (CO) rebreathing technique has enabled altitude goers to have their ‘response’ quantified. Using this technique over the last Olympic cycle our UK physiologists (known on the ‘streets’ as the Haemoglobin Massive – Jamie Pringle, Barry Fudge, Gareth Turner, Ben Holliss, Charlie Pedlar) have been able to demystify who responds and who doesn’t and sure enough with initial exposures a similar spread of responses is observed. We could just leave it like that and condemn those that don’t respond to staying native to sea-level for their careers. Or we could ask why they don’t respond and work our way through the problem. Could it be the level of oxygen desaturation experienced for a given altitude/hypoxic exposure? Could it be the underlying iron status of the athlete determining the raw materials for haem group synthesis? Could it be the inflammation status of the athlete, perhaps in proportion to training/recovery balance, that governs the pathway of EPO synthesis? I don’t think anyone is certain at this moment in time.
What does seem to be clear is that if you can resolve these variables, in combination with the manipulation of pre- and post- exposures and ‘heights’ of altitude stimulus – you can provoke a positive response in nearly all. Indeed the levels of Hb mass changes observed through appropriate individualisation of the stimulus can outstrip those commonly reported in the literature. So it is less of a case of responders vs non-responders, it is more a case of individualised protocol or non-individualised protocol (although that isn’t catchy). I am not sure that this could be easily or meaningfully written up in the literature – the methods section would ostensibly be individual case protocols full of tinkering and unusual approaches to initiate similar responses. Effectively though altitude/hypoxia for sea level performance can now be summed up by Barry Fudge in two words – “it works”.

I will leave you with some future thoughts. Up until now, in this particular blog, I have not referred to the event categories that altitude/hypoxia can positively effect. Your assumption, I presume, is of course the aerobic events, from middle distance upward, where oxidative processes dominate energy turnover, and you would be correct that that is where most of our work has been. Commonly we don’t think of the 400m run or 100m swim or the sprint cycle as target sports for benefitting from altitude/hypoxic. However, the energy contribution to such events is still 20-45% from oxidative processes – so it seems perverse that one wouldn’t spend time and effort developing such a capability perhaps using altitude/hypoxia. Jim Hines the 1968 100m Olympic gold medallists commented that the 100m dash in Mexico was the hardest he had ever done (which reminds me of sprint reps when at altitude feeling like double the effort). The point being that lack of oxygen in the system intensifies the potency of the existing stimulus, be it during exercise or at rest. Just as recently, the response to strength work has been shown to be increased in hypoxia – the lack of oxygen just makes it harder. It would be interesting if future studies could more comprehensively explore the effect of altitude/hypoxia on high power training and performance. So I wonder whether in the future we might be able to work on going to Altius to go Citius and Fortius.

Altitude and hypoxia, at least in the UK, have been waiting to be applied fully. The number of unknowns has become fewer, primarily due to the use of the CO rebreathing technique and its application to the individualisation of altitude/hypoxia has meant a far greater number of athletes can benefit. This has led to sports changing their approach and attitude to altitude/hypoxia. Why? Because for the first real time in our system, altitude/hypoxia can be applied with the assurance of knowing and/or ensuring a cost effective return on investment. So for its performance benefit, individualisation potential, but most significantly that an application of sports physiology can move mountains (see what I did there) and convince sports to mould whole training strategy – CO rebreathing for the measurement of Hb mass takes the no. 2, the silver medal slot, in my top 10 applications of sports physiology.

*1999 – Race to the mountain cross at Silvretta whilst away with the rowing team – after 5 minutes I had lowered my sprint to a walk but still could not get my heart rate down. Height 2050m
2000 – Sprint swim at the start of water polo game at cross training camp at Sierra Nevada also with the rowers. I am pleased to announce that I won the ball, threw it back, flapped to the side and was no use for the rest of the game. Height 2320m
2001 – On a rest day with Bobsleighers in Park City, I skied down a wrong turn off-piste by about 100m, I clambered back up in deep snow, collapsed to the floor in a frenzy of wheezy panting only to be inspected by some ‘dudes’, (to be read in gnarly American accent), “Hey man, are you ok?”. I rolled over, skis akimbo, only to reveal the GB Olympic kit symbols on my coat (mistake), which was met with, “Oh my god, it’s the British ski team!” I couldn’t resist replying between gasps, “I’ll…be…ready…in...time…for…the…Games” (4 months before Salt Lake). Height 2950m
None to report since.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Top 10 Applications: No. 3 Prime Target

This application has been about 10 years in the making and with that one of the slowest burning project areas that we have worked with. Let me start with the reason as to why it has taken so long to get it going. 
A sports scientist is rightly encouraged to get out into the training environment and see what is going on, engage with the coach and athletes and immerse themselves in the sport, event and sub-disciplines. As a part of that immersion process, active learning can really only happen with two way dialogue about what you can offer in relation to what the coach needs. Some generic questions, such as, “What are the goals of the training session” or “What is this athlete’s strengths and weaknesses” will facilitate the learning and enable you to better prescribe and advise pertinently. Some questions are best saved until you have a strong working relationship with a coach and athlete, “Coach, shall we rip it all up and start again?” is one that you need a 25+ year relationship with commensurate ups and downs, cycle after cycle, athlete after athlete, solidity that won’t rupture under such inquisition. “You don’t want to do it like that” type statements from a new team member have to be carefully judged (i.e. avoided at all costs).
The sensitivity of the topic or performance component will also shadow the possibility for intervention. The warm-up is one such component that is held with protected status. Firstly there is the ‘warm-up’ area that has highly-privileged access rights, accreditations, ring-fenced (literally), guarded policing that makes it plain to all ‘this is exclusive’. This is largely the domain of the coach, although the therapist and doctor will often be the busiest with niggles through to withdrawals to manage and sort. Alongside the pre-race pep talk (which Matt Pinsent tells the story of such high expectations of Jurgen Grobler’s rallying cry exhortation to be simply “have a good race” – brevity is brilliant, eh?) the warm-up is probably the most important job to oversee and have something to say about during the pre-race period. As such it is cherished and held as an important role for the coach to get right. Therefore, due to the reverence and exclusive importance any question that effectively probes, “What do you do in your warm-ups and can we tinker around with it?” will often fall on its arse.
In 1999, I started my PhD studies alongside the then bright young thing and now bright middle aged thing Mark Burnley (@drmarkburnley), both of us looking into oxygen uptake kinetics. Mark was exploring the priming effect of prior exercise upon the criterion bout (i.e. the main ‘performance’, not to be confused with boxing or illness bouts). The science is sound, there is a meaningful speeding of the oxygen uptake switch-on with heavy (halfway betwix ones threshold and ones VO2max) warm-up performed just 6 mins before the main effort. Then a number of studies followed, showing positive effects upon a performance type effort. In the meantime, we had gone to coaches in the appropriate sports suggesting that we should have a look into this effect. We were rebuffed. We weren't told as much, but the message was, "Your evidence is circumspect so this is off limits". We then did some note taking and found that for many athletes in athletics there was a remarkable resemblance between the warm-up procedures used pre-competition for sprinter all the way up to marathoners. It goes like this, 10-15 min jog, mobilisation/dynamic stretches, roughly 5 strides – which is the term given to short sharp semi-sprints, often performed with increasing intensity for about 50 to 60 m, holding room, out onto the track, a few more strides then race.
The standard warm-up protocol in track athletics

It doesn’t make sense that a sprinter would do the same as long distance runner does it, but what is the alternative? Based upon Mark’s work we proposed to a number of coaches and athletes that they do something at sufficient intensity and duration to raise oxygen uptake to within-race levels, such that when they go again in the main performance (theoretically and logically) it would do so at a faster speed, demand less of anaerobic processes at the outset and so offer the potential for better performance. The feedback was that they didn’t want to spend all their pennies up in the warm-up for fear that they would suffer in the main performance. Yet even after describing what we thought would (again theoretically and logically) work, it wouldn’t get through the coaching firewall. The ‘concept’ just wasn’t watertight enough.
We resolved to doing some research. With the backing from UK Sport (cheers @ScottDUK), led by Barry Fudge (@bfudge), Jamie Pringle (@jamiepringle) and Andy Jones (@andybeetroot) and I, with the able conditioning input from Pete McKnight (@petemcknight), we set about getting a coach, a group of elite athletes involved (being necessarily patient all year long and taking the opportunity when it came) to undertake an 800m performance trial with and without a priming warm-up. The primer consisted of condensing the 4 x 50m strides into one 200m stride at race pace. We held the athletes for a 20 minute holding area before their trial, in order to simulate the competition scenario.
Subtly different warm-up method where the prolonged stride primes the system to go again for the main performance.(Athletes understand this best if you describe the 2nd rep concept, where the first rep of an interval set is always met with 'this is going to be a hard session' thoughts, but come the 2nd rep athletes often settle in an feel much more comfortable, i.e. the system has been primed!)

The headline difference was a 1 s or 0.8% improvement in performance, underpinned by a greater total O2 consumed with the priming condition. Interestingly, the performance in improvement all came in the last 400m where the pace slowed less than the control, i.e. coming on strong at the end. The uptake of the research findings was immediate, the coach was convinced; other coaches knew of the credibility of the athletes involved and once the practice was solidified, it was tried out for real in competition, fed onto other physiologists (one of the strengths of having a well-connected EIS network) in other 'engine' sports such as swimming, cycling and rowing. Both at Beijing and in the major championships since athletes have been plying this method to their performances. Individualisation is key though to getting it right for athletes, with variables such as ‘holding’ duration, pacing method, aerobic-anaerobic type and prior (previous rounds, multiple events etc) activities complicating the formula for the physiologist to unfold.
Priming the warm-up prevented athletes from slowing down as much in the 2nd half of the 800m time trial

So we have known that warming up has worked for aeons, but up until just recently it has been an area of mystery and at best a blunt instrument. It was not until we conducted some controlled trials, importantly, on elite athletes and with a competition specific protocol, did the breakthrough come to application – and this approach has now infused our systems and long term-strategy. But it is also thanks to the foundation of work that we must give praise – to Mark Burnley (the ‘Prime’ Minister, if you will) and Andy Jones who have masterfully corralled this topic so well. For its clear performance enhancement, its breaching of the protected area of pre-competition intervention and its wide application to other key sports – priming warm-up takes the 3rd place, the bronze placing and a podium finish, in my top 10 applications of sports physiology.

Just 2 places left - what will make the silver and gold medal positions?

Prior high-intensity exercise improves 800-m running performance

Now updated abstract link is 


Prior high-intensity exercise increases the oxidative energy contribution to subsequent exercise and may enhance exercise tolerance.  The potential impact of a high-intensity warm-up on competitive performance, however, has not been investigated.  PURPOSE: To test the hypothesis that a high-intensity warm-up would speed o2 kinetics and enhance 800-m running performance in well-trained athletes.  METHODS: Eleven highly-trained middle distance runners completed two 800-m time-trials on separate days on an indoor track preceded by two different warm-up procedures.  The 800-m time-trials were preceded by a 10-min self-paced jog and standardised mobility drills, followed by either 6 x 50-m ‘strides’ (control, CON) or 2 x 50-m strides and a continuous high-intensity 200-m run (HWU) at race-pace.  Blood [lactate] was measured before the time-trials and o2 was measured breath-by-breath throughout exercise.  RESULTS: 800-m time-trial performance was significantly faster following HWU (HWU, 124.5 ± 8.3 vs. CON, 125.7 ± 8.7 s, P<0.05).  Blood [lactate] was greater following HWU (HWU, 3.6 ± 1.9 vs. CON, 1.7 ± 0.8 mM; P<0.01).  The mean response time for the o2 response was not different between conditions (HWU, 27 ± 6 vs. CON, 28 ± 7 s) but total O2 consumed (HWU, 119 ± 18 vs. CON, 109 ± 28 ml.kg-1, P=0.05) and the peak o2 attained (HWU, 4.21 ± 0.85 vs. CON, 3.91 ± 0.63 L·min-1; P=0.08) tended to be greater following HWU.  CONCLUSIONS: These data indicate that a sustained high-intensity warm-up enhances 800-m time-trial performance in trained athletes.

Keywords: prior exercise; warm-up; priming; middle distance running

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Top 10 Applications: No. 4 Determined to improve performance

“And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left.
And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines”. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.”
Judges 16: 29-30
Independent of the ostensible absence of religious or moral tone, in this story Samson applied his architectural knowledge of the function of the pillar columns that support the structural elements of the house above. Assuming that there was equal composition and spacing of the pillars the load would have been distributed evenly. By compromising the pillars of the Philistine temple, Samson would therefore corrupt the load distribution and lead to some or part of the temple to fall. Now I am not sure whether legend is an accurate representation of events, whether Samson did indeed exist, or whether he would have been able to take out a single temple pillar let alone two (Although I do recall witnessing the late Jon Pall Sigmarsson, leaning against promotional car after a strong man display at my home town Bournemouth Athletics club. The warp-warp sound of the driver’s side door panel bowing under the mass of this Viking mountain, was not only a great source of amusement to Sigmarsson but also to the promoter who’s car it was!) without some seriously shoddy buildings work (see www.ratedpeople.com to avoid a similar slewing) or a some rubbing of the African and Arabian tectonic plates. Nevertheless this is my attempt at an introductory metaphor for the components of a structure. Equally I could have called upon similar metaphors; roots and branches of a tree, constructs of a mainframe, pieces of a pie, chapters of a book, sections of an orchestra, etc.

These are determinants, discriminators, constituents, factors, constructs, contributors, components, elements, correlates, predictors, the combination of which make up the whole. For example, we all know that lactate threshold, is a more influential ability for marathon running than it is for 800m running. However, the lazy amongst us will label an event, say ‘endurance’ and then measure and report with an equal emphasis upon the various components without discrimination as to the proportional contribution to the event. A typical example of this is in a physiological test report that often lists from top to bottom, name, event, DOB, mass, stature etc, all the way down the typical grid of the stage test which will no doubt feature all the headline measurements for each stage. For the 800m runner for example, the lactate response is important because of the underpinning fitness and the relation to relative intensities that can be derived for training purposes etc. But it is not the most crucial parameter such as VO2max or anaerobic capacity. Nevertheless, the bog-standard physiologist will produce a mammoth blood lactate vs speed graph, that seems to shout “look athlete I can measure blood lactate AND plot it on a graph, check me out”. In this instance the tone and tenor of the report is not in relation, in context, in proportion to the demands of the event.
So how do we know what is indeed important? Well there are several ways to cut an event up?
· The energetic model – aerobic, anaerobic capacity, anaerobic power etc. (example)
· The parameter model – VO2max, economy etc. (example)
· The performance model – start, turns, finish etc. (example)

Some events lend themselves more so to each one of the models. Swimming for example is tricky to get actual physiological measurements during, but is bound by the walls of the pool – so it lends itself nicely to the performance model. Middle distance running, with the pack running dynamics is trickier to track actual distance performance, so an energetic or parameter model works better. Cycling is infinitely measurable so can often be sliced up by any of these ways and often is by way of extensive SRM measurement.

My first formal foray into trying get a handle on event demands was with the rowing team. Inspired by Tim Noakes’ papers that drew associations between peak treadmill velocity and some other physiological measures with long distance running performance, I set about drawing up similar associations. With the assistance of Greg Whyte, Kate Jones and the bio-statistician Alan Nevill we developed a mathematical model of determinants of ergometer rowing performance. . Beyond the results there were a few surprise results. The maximum power test, usually performed almost as a pre-test ‘chest thump’ was found to be as effective as discriminating the fast from the slow as any other measure, in a predominantly aerobic event. Crucially using methods such as backward step-wise linear regression (don’t worry I am not going to go too ‘statty’ on you), you can also derive beta-coefficients that give you a weighting as to the relative importance (i.e. if you multiply by that factor it can be more influential upon the criterion, in this case ‘speed’). This way you can not only let the mathematics do the choosing for you, find out what is important, but then also find out how important each element is. In this case vVO2max came out top.
To round off the story about my own research, I can tell you not to read it. The linear relationship does not make sense, I’ll tell you why if you haven’t already nodded off at the mention of ‘beta-coefficients’. As an engine (read physiological capacity) increases, speed does indeed increase but not in a straightforward way. Just as your miles per gallon drops inexorably as you go increasingly above 65 mph, as your engine increases, speed increases and so will aero/hydro-dynamic drag. Effectively the faster you go, the better you need to be at pushing air/fluid out of the way. This is often overlooked when you hear those incessantly predictable commentaries “it is now down to who wants it most”. For a start I have never heard anyone tell me they didn’t fancy it that much. Secondly the small margins between athlete performances are magnified by disproportionately larger differences between physiology (according to cubic function – just in case anyone fancies squeezing that little nugget into the 100m final commentary). Hence our second paper, which ostensibly says, “you know that last paper, it was wrong –  read this one”.

So not only does determinants of performance allow you to construct a model of performance, it can also allow you to find out which is the most influential performance factors and therefore allow you to develop a profile of strengths and weaknesses for each individual athlete. I am not going to go into the debate about whether you should improve strengths further vs bringing weaknesses up to scratch, but what you could compute is whether a weakness is become a hindrance to performance. i.e. a variable might not be able to develop because another is limiting it or if you remove a pillar from a building – run.
A word of warning, models come and go. After we undertook our middle distance running analysis,  showing the importance of VO2max and economy, a number of female athletes ‘moved up’ from 400m to 800m and not surprisingly those athletes didn’t have marvellous VO2maxs and economies. Nearly all of them had been previously been told that their VO2max “was rubbish” (their interpretation, not the actual diagnosis), yet they could run under 2 minutes. The model doesn’t predict accurately because the model was not constructed with them included.

If you don’t fancy doing the math or you haven’t got access to reams of data to play with then at the very least assemble your thoughts, categorise your thinking, develop your model of performance – it will be your reference in the hard times and an outlet in the good times. More importantly gaining an understanding of the determinants of performance, will give you a story to tell. For this reason I put the determinants of performance in my top 10 applications of sports physiology.