As we begin 2018, John Mulcahy, director at Sport Science Agency, takes a look back on 2017 and the three significant stories that shaped the sport science year which will continue to have an impact into 2018, both inside and outside the performance arena.
Nike Breaking 2
Without doubt the biggest sport science story of 2017 was Nike’s attempt to break the 2 hour marathon barrier. The 2 hour barrier is one of athletics last great challenges. Indeed, it was postulated as long ago as 1991 that a time of 1.57:58 was possible under perfect conditions. Nike’s project was four years in the making and brought together some of the best minds in sport science as well as an interesting group of 3 athletes who had been drawn from an initial 60 strong cohort.
The combination of Nike’s financial backing, scientific excellence and some of the world’s elite performers lead many to believe a sub 2 hour time would be possible. As the project developed, it became clear that this would not be a legitimate world record attempt during one of the major marathon events. From a sport science point of view, this didn’t matter. If anything, it makes it more exciting as it allowed the sport science team to think the unthinkable and take the athletes outside the usual constraints of racing in order to seek the limits of human endurance.
Every aspect of performance was examined with an obvious emphasis on the training and preparation of the athletes. Areas such as VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy were all evaluated at the start of the project to identify who the researchers thought were the athletes with the physiology capable of sustaining the training load and having a realistic chance of hitting the sub 2 hour goal.
But physiology is only part of what makes an athlete great. Other areas the researchers looked at included the course, environmental temperature, humidity, altitude and obviously, being Nike research, the shoes. The researchers also became increasingly interested in the psychology of their runners. Ultimately the effort didn’t manage to produce a sub 2 hour performance - Eliud Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of achieving the goal. That is less than a second per mile.
When evaluating the effort, the main performance benefit seemed to come from the drafting formation, developed using support runners throughout the record attempt. Nike commissioned wind tunnel research to ensure they positioned support runners in the most effective formation to maximise the drafting effect. This finding may have huge potential for distance running in the future. In cycling, drafting and protecting the GC rider is a long-established principle. Running has always been seen as a more individual sport and while runners will often train together, rarely do they compete in such a strict team formation.
Nike’s Breaking 2 didn’t manage to achieve athletics' last great barrier, but with its drafting and team formation research, it has provided a model for how it might be achieved both in a scientific experiment and ultimately in a major city marathon.
The Rise of the Aging Athlete
As human beings live longer, and medicine and sport science continue to develop, it should be no surprise that athletes have been able to take advantage and extend their careers. Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Serena Williams have all dazzled fans, media and fellow performers this year despite their relative age, which has left people searching for the secret elixir of these supposed super agers.
As with much in sport at the elite level, an athlete’s ability to maintain performance into their 4th decade is a mix of genetic and lifestyle factors. Generally, the key anabolic hormones associated with muscle growth and maintenance begin to decline in the mid to late 30’s. This can have a particularly profound effect on an athlete’s ability to produce power which inevitably has an effect on performance elements such as sprinting, acceleration, striking force and change of direction speed.
New developments regarding training, diet, injury prevention and recovery strategies have allowed more athletes to maintain their careers into their early to mid 30’s. However, the ability to perform at the highest level needs to be supported by a strong motivational drive to train and also the emotional intelligence to accept limitations and plan in order to peak for specific periods during the year.
Sport science will continue to elongate athlete’s careers. Better understanding of the genetics, training responses, diet and recovery will combine to support the physiological demands. But the greatest elements in the near future will be development of psychological and intellectual understanding to further help athletes develop the mental skills needed to cope with managing the latter stages of sporting careers.
This generation of athlete, with the support of developing sport science, has proved that age is no longer the barrier it once was. This has altered perceptions as to the impact older athletes can have. It will pave the way to extending athlete contracts and the age profile within which elite sport operates.
Welfare and Winning
Athlete welfare hit the back pages this year following a number of allegations made by athletes within the Olympic sport system. The cyclist Jess Varnish led a wave of criticism directed at National Governing bodies funded by UK Sport and subscribing to the so called ‘no compromise’ strategy focused on Olympic and Paralympic success.
The treatment and culture within which athletes were expected to perform began to come into question. Had the ‘no compromise’ system that has seen unprecedented Olympic success over the past decade been at the expense of athlete welfare? Or is an elite performance environment just that and not everyone can handle the demands they are faced with?
Athletes and coaches were asked for their opinions and experiences with many defending the systems that had helped them achieve their sporting goals. But the allegations kept coming.
National governing bodies have employed performance lifestyle experts for a number of years in order to support the wider lifestyle aspects of athletes. The goal was to support athletes in developing world class performance habits while they are away from the track, pool or velodrome. However, for some, when the sport becomes all encompassing it can easily become too much, pressure builds, motivation dips and performance inevitably suffers.
Across sport, coaches and athletes will have different approaches, views, interests and motivational strategies. This is no different from any workplace. In the major professional sports, players have the ability to move and perhaps find a team that ‘fits’ their outlook and personality. Within the Olympic system in the UK, each sport generally only allows athletes one major training environment within which they have to adhere to the culture and expectations that are often entrenched.
Performance systems are key to producing success. The continuity that exists across the British system has turned Team GB into a global sporting powerhouse (compare this with the relative reactionary approach seen within football). However, these systems need to continually evolve and develop in order to support athletes from a broader talent pool, often that broader talent pool is a consequence of their own previous success.
Elite sport is tough. Many with the physical talent, simply don’t have the psychological resilience, drive or desire to sustain the training load and lifestyle sacrifices needed. Pushing athletes mentally as well as physically is part of the selection process. It allows coaches and performance managers to assess how athletes perform under pressure and ultimately evaluate if they are developing the required skills to win on the biggest stage. This will mean athletes taken out of their comfort zone, it will mean pressure to perform in training and it will mean being able to meet high standards across everything they do, with consequences if these challenges cannot be successfully met.
The challenge of sport science is to recognise the individuality of athletes and create systems that can dial up or down the support and challenges that athletes need in order to progress their careers, be that within the sport or leaving it to focus on other challenges.
As we look forward to an Olympic year in 2018 the trajectory for sport science is only upward. The increase in financial rewards across professional sport, the global attention an Olympic Games brings and the continuous health challenges we face, all look to sport science for support. The development in technology, the increased interest in psychology and advances in genetic medicine will provide new avenues for sport Science to explore in the coming years. Who knows what 2018 will bring, but you can be sure sport science will be at the forefront.