Rowing is New Zealand's top Olympic medal winner - and now new research into muscles and tendons is targeting increased performance in that and possibly other sports.
Auckland University of Technology (AUT) postgraduate student Ryan Turfrey is doing his PhD on the structural changes of muscles and tendons during strength-based exercise and how they affect performance at the highest level of the sport.
Rowing is already our most prolific source of Olympic medals (21 in all since 1908, just ahead of track and field with 20 and sailing with 18) and Turfrey has a box seat for conducting and applying his research. He is one of the strength and conditioning specialists for Rowing New Zealand in Cambridge, through High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ).
He hopes his findings will offer greater understanding of how strength training can be effectively used during the build-up to major sporting events, developing targeted and tailored exercise programmes for high-performance athletes.
It works like this: using ultrasound technology, Turfrey will analyse muscle changes of rowers in response to different training stimuli to establish the effect of the training. The main aim is to discover which of the current strength-based exercises are best when training for a large event.
The ultrasound gives a picture of the structure of the muscle fibres, important for determining the strength and speed of the athlete. That information can be useful for individualising training and maximising the positive benefits on muscles and their performance.
The research will be conducted in the build-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics with findings used to help future campaigns. It may help refine existing knowledge to provide performance boosts.
Traditionally there have been two camps of thought among rowing coaches - the endurance strategy of "miles make champions" versus a more strength-based regime in the gym. Increasingly coaches are combining aspects of both.
"Hopefully the research will give us a more in-depth view of how athletes respond to the strength training currently in place," says Turfrey. "It will help us refine our programme to get best possible results.
"It would obviously be useful to know whether these strength-based exercises create the changes we hope they do," he says. "Also it will be good to discover if the exercises may work better for certain athletes than for others. If we can identify that, we can target exercise to each athlete for best results."
Mike McGuigan, Turfrey's supervisor and professor of strength and conditioning at AUT's Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand, says applied research can have significant benefits for sport.
"Ryan's project is a great example of how practitioners can combine research and practice while earning a higher degree, ultimately benefitting the sport and athletes."
While the research is focused on rowers, it may have potential for other sports. However, at present Turfrey is wary about letting others in on what may be a secret weapon in the build-up to major international competitions.
"The research may well be embargoed and remain in house," he says.
Turfrey has been based at High Performance Sport New Zealand since 2010, after working there on placement as part of his Bachelor of Sport and recreation study at AUT. When a position arose with the New Zealand BMX team in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics, he was offered a full-time role, combining work with completion of his Masters of Sport and Exercise, before moving into a permanent role with the rowing squad.
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