The science of sport: Exploring ways to be better, faster and stronger

Expectations are growing for our top athletes and cutting-edge sports technology is helping them achieve their goals. Science reporter Jamie Morton tours an Auckland facility taking our high-flyers from the lab to the podium.

Marathon runner Scott Winton (right) gets his aerobic fitness tested by Andrew Kilding at the institute. Photo / Greg Bowker
Marathon runner Scott Winton (right) gets his aerobic fitness tested by Andrew Kilding at the institute. Photo / Greg Bowker

The young cyclist pumps her legs upon the pedals of the ergometer, her face turning red and wet within a few short seconds.

"Go, go, go, come on, come on, come on, go, go go," a trainer shouts, as the cyclist pushes her body as far as it can go.

The scene seems more like something out of your average suburban gym, rather than one of the most advanced research laboratories in New Zealand.

But on a rainy afternoon in Mairangi Bay, this is a typical sight at Sports Performance Research In New Zealand (Sprinz) at the AUT Millennium Institute.

From Olympians to All Blacks, our high-performing stars climb to new heights within these walls.

Think The Six Million Dollar Man: the experts here can make you better, faster, stronger.

The Bike New Zealand cyclist firing on the ergometer is running the Wingate Test, which can tell how aerobically fit she is in a single short exercise.

A screen in front of her computes how long it has taken her to reach her VO2 max - the body's limit for transporting and processing oxygen during incremental exercise - a simple indicator of physical fitness.

Researchers look at the curve of the graph on the screen and, if the test delivers poor results, she may be sent away with a new exercise regime to develop peak power.

As far as the science goes, there's nothing spectacular about this relatively standard test - but there's little else that's relatively standard at Sprinz.

Your local gym probably won't take muscle biopsies to analyse your immunity or use 3D technology to create a biomechanical profile of your physical strengths and weaknesses.

"I guess you could look on it as a cool science," Sprinz's running and cycling mechanics clinic educator, Kelly Sheerin, puts it.

The Government sees development in high performance sport as vitally important to maintaining our place on the world stage, having boosted its investment.

Funding for official body High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) sits at $60 million a year. And with it, expectations have also grown.

HPSNZ's strategic plan for the next seven years sets out medal goals for coming Olympiads - 14 in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, 16 in 2020.

The plan rightly acknowledges sports science as a big part of getting to the podium, one of its priorities being to harness "technology, research minds and resources" towards high-performance sport.

"It's increased massively in recent years - now scientists have become integral to sports teams to help them gain that cutting edge," said Sprinz's deputy director, Associate Professor Andrew Kilding.

In New Zealand, Associate Professor Kilding considers AUT as the most active university in sport and exercise research.

It regularly pumps out new research papers, most of them by PHD students, building upon an already strong publication record in top international journals.

In one paper last year, Sprinz researchers analysed how wind speed, altitude and other environmental factors could help the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, move even quicker.

Many Sprinz graduates have gone on to bright careers, among them Trent Lawton, who became Rowing New Zealand's strength and conditioning coach.

"Absolutely everyone is trying to find those milliseconds or those tiny percentages to change medal colour - so you've got to be thinking outside the box," Associate Professor Kilding said.

But it's not all about helping athletes break records. Research projects are investigating the long-term health effects of playing rugby and how to prevent injury among triathletes and endurance runners.

This is a key area for Mr Sheerin, a trained physiotherapist who considers himself more of a scientist with a clinical background.

"When you boil it down, you spend a lot of time looking at numbers and computer images," he said.

"I love the human contact and sports element of being a scientist here, but you've also got to buy in to the numbers side of things ... the nitty gritty."

His playground, the Sports Kinesiology, Injury Prevention and Performance laboratory, is one of the institute's most impressive showpieces.

The first thing you might notice in the lab are several glowing red lights which angle in on an in-ground treadmill at the centre of the room.

These are cameras that make up a 3D motion system - the same technology that film studios like Weta Workshop use for digital animation.

"We attach little reflective markers to athletes and then we track them, whether they're running, cycling or something else," Mr Sheerin said.

"The treadmill has force-plates within it, and we are able to look at impact forces and propulsion forces, and marry them up either from an injury or a performance point of view."

Analysing the rendered animation with computer technology could identify improvements to running or cycling techniques, or reveal why injury areas play up.

"Typically, we'll run a protocol where we step up through different speeds and get an idea as to what's going on, from training pace right up to race pace."

Athletes can also be fitted with wireless pods, which use electrodes to gauge muscle capacity during exercise.

"Once they have done their run, you can stop it at any time and see, okay, they just hit the ground there, so there is a certain amount of force being imparted here and certain muscles are firing in a certain way there."

Sometimes, the upshot might mean a different running and training regime.

"These technique changes can actually make it worse for a period of time, but then the ultimate goal is beyond that."

Research from the lab links up with other work by his colleagues across the corridor. In the Sports Physiology Laboratory, athletes are put through the motions so researchers can investigate their cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic and thermoregulatory responses to exercise.

They can pinpoint reasons why they might suffer hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, during training, or help structure a recovery from injury.

Much of it is geared toward endurance sports. "For most of the athletes who come in here, we do a whole lot of baseline tests before we intervene," Associate Professor Kilding said.

"It might just be a one-off intervention with a new performance-enhancing substance, or it might be a training intervention, where we monitor how they respond to a training type, then later do post-testing to see if they've done any better or are just the same.

"A lot of this research is done on university students, but how that translates to an elite performer is a quantum leap - so we try and do research on the highest possible calibre athletes."

While he can't reveal who, top Olympians have been regularly tested as they train for Rio. They've been using the lab's environmental chamber - capable of simulating climates as hot as 40C or as cold as 5C - to mimic Rio's balmy summer.

One of two in the country, the chamber can have athletes hot and sweat-drenched within minutes.

"Athletes handle heat differently - some cope well with it and some don't, so we can test to see whether you're a coper, and put strategies in place to try to help you," Associate Professor Kilding said.

Yet it's not the furthest extent researchers here have their athletes going in the name of excellence.

In the sports immunology and biochemistry lab scientists can quickly process and analyse blood or muscle samples.

They might be checking on protein levels, or how muscle has responded to different stimulus.

Detecting subtle changes might tell athletes how they should be dieting, or what forms of training they should do throughout the day - and in which order.

Their blood is also exposed to various bacteria to test response.

"At certain times of an athlete's training season, their immune system gets depressed, and we can look at how they fight infection," Associate Professor Kilding said.

"You've got athletes training several hours a day and they are pushing themselves fairly hard.

"As long as you have a period where you can recover from that, you can suppress it temporarily, and the body adapts and builds itself stronger to cope with stimulus.

"If you can arrange that cycle successfully, you can ensure athletes don't get over-trained."

The most advanced science could tell how an athlete's body reacted to illness only after the fact - a barrier Associate Professor Kilding is pushing to break through.

"We are trying to find that golden nugget marker which tells us, in a couple of weeks, you are going to become ill."

Research in the burgeoning strength and conditioning lab isn't so invasive.

Instead, the broad theme is power - it's Val Adams' territory.

A range of state-of-the-art machines, providing real-time feedback on LCD display screens, can measure force, acceleration, range of motion and balance. Professor Mike McGuigan said a single isometric assessment in a rack fitted with a force plate related well to what an athlete could squat or bench press.

The lab's Biodex balance and unweighting system could also reveal strength imbalances in each leg.

"This allows you to plan an intervention targeting a weakness that might be on one side," he said.

"The science tells us that pretty much any sport can benefit from this type of strength training."

He believed most people would be surprised at the amount of science that goes into training our elite athletes.

But is there a limit to which science can help them?

"It's hard to say," he said. "I think it depends on the sport. We are getting close to maxing out in some events, but across the board I'd say there is still a lot of scope for improvement.

"At top levels, you're talking about just 1 or 2 per cent changes - and that can mean the difference between getting fourth and getting first."

Research making strides

Work by AUT's Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand has been pushing sports science to new heights. Here are just a few examples.

Strength testing and training of elite rowers
Research conducted by Dr Trent Lawton of High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ), and professors John Cronin and Mike McGuigan explored the benefits of strength testing and weight training over various phases of preparation for elite rowers. Their studies have shown that strength testing provides valid data on which to benchmark development and to select rowers.

Strength and ballistic performance in highly trained rugby union players
PhD student Travis McMaster conducted a series of studies on elite rugby union players under the supervision of All Blacks' strength and conditioning coach Dr Nic Gill, Professor McGuigan and Professor Cronin. Various methods of assessing and training strength and power performance were investigated including the effects of detraining during the off-season. The study revealed large drops in power and speed performance with short periods of detraining.

Keeping our triathletes on track for gold
PhD student Anna Lorimer and Professor Patria Hume from the Running and Cycling Mechanics Clinic have been working with Dr Simon Pearson from HPSNZ to unlock some of the mystery around lower extremity injuries in our elite triathletes. The athletes will have their running mechanics measured both with, and without, a preceding cycle time trial to assess the changes in their muscle mechanics. The outcomes will provide coaches, scientists and medical practitioners with sound strategies to help keep triathletes injury free.

Blood, sweat and tears of an athlete
In the Sports Immunology and Biochemistry Laboratory Dr Deborah Fletcher and her students can quickly analyse blood, saliva, sweat and urine samples. Researchers are interested in developing strategies that can help reduce an athlete's risk of infection during training and competition. Dr Fletcher and PhD student Jessica Dent have been investigating the effect four weeks of concurrent resistance and sprint training has on inflammation and muscle signalling compared to single sessions of resistance and sprint training.

Metabolism and exercise science
The Metabolic and Exercise Science Clinic is working on how to help elite and sub-elite athletes become better fat burners when they are exercising. In a range of studies the academic team are looking at how to stay at a healthy weight and do so by eating higher fat, lower carbohydrate diets. They are also studying the benefits of short, intense exercise.

- NZ Herald

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