The future athlete

Performance sport lies at the other end of the spectrum from health monitoring. It seeks to measure and calibrate statistically athletic outliers capable of pushing 400 watts for over an hour.

There have been attempts to measure this physical effort going back a century or more, with levels of sophistication increasing over time as technology has got smaller to allow more field based measurements. Context is crucial. What can be captured and measured in a lab is not necessarily what will come back from real life competition. The danger, in performance sport as much as health monitoring, is an overload of information and a lack appropriate actionable responses. Just because big data is available to sport does not mean that it is employed effectively. From a sports science perspective, big data is frequently the cart before the horse.

 

The first principles of training derive from scientific methodology. The best athlete and coach support teams work with the pattern of observation, hypothesis, model and test. These have to be structured around a training structure of train, eat, sleep, repeat. Training has to focus not only on the physical performance of the athlete, but their mental training and well-being. The whole programme has to be delivered together with a coach. The coach must encourage, question and assess. The art of the training programme has to be repeatedly putting the body under stress, allowing rest, and repeating the stress until the body adapts. This is all timed around competitive performance. The best athletes calculate where they want to be on the day of competition, and work backwards in order to achieve that goal.

While teams and coaches may monitor the physical performance of their athletes over a longer time horizon, in a race scenario the focus shifts to managing power outputs in a cycling context. Within a stage of the Tour de France, teams will analyse the route extensively beforehand, understanding the output required over the different stages. The first part of any performance model is the understanding of the physics over the course and its undulations. This establishes power targets over the stage. A second preparation phase comes in aerodynamic modelling, with air resistance rising exponentially at higher speeds, so that elite cyclists might be expending 90% of their energy in cutting through the air at speeds > 50 km/h. The third stage takes these two inputs within a physiological context, assessing the physical and psychological capacities of cyclists over the course.

This is not to reduce sport entirely to plannable mechanics. The plan does not always go to plan and requires the athlete to adapt to their changing situation. This is particularly so in the case of the Tour de France. Chris Froome prominently demonstrated this twice on the way to his victory in 2016. In one case, he took advantage of a lapse of concentration by his competitors to launch an unexpected downhill attack, adopting an unconventional seating position on his top tube as he did so. At another, when a sudden stop by a motor bike caused a pile up, he abandoned his broken bike and started to run until his team could get through the crowd to deliver him a new machine.

Interestingly, some teams do not attempt to quantify physiological reactions of cyclists during races because of the high levels of environmental variability day on day. The second is that there are many different factors involved in physiological output – and it is known that sports men and women can exceed conventional limits when pushing themselves into the red. It is currently simpler and more predictable to focus on the output of power rather than how that output is achieved. There is ample scope for further work on identifying biomarkers, their role in complex systems, and the relationship between brain and physiological output. Sports science is also seeking to better integrate point of care diagnostics and, in the case of the Tour de France, keeping healthy bodies on the road, within the circus of competition, for three weeks.

Read the related summaries of this event:

Summary of Scott Drawer's presentation at the Centre's Health monitoring event in November 2016. Scott is Head of Sky Performance Hub, Team Sky. Summary by Simon Woodward.