It is very easy to forget that sport is not just made up of the individual athlete, and their training schedule, but also the ground breaking research to aid everything from nutrition, health, equipment, physiotherapy, rehabilitation and performance. I wouldn’t want to criticize any of our athletes, but I’m pretty sure that generally Britain is good at sports where athletes get to sit down, on equipment and technology designed in our universities.

In this second special two part blog on sport, Eluceo will give you an insight into research in sport in UK universities up and down the country. Please note, this is only a snippet, the picture is far far bigger! Most people regard sport as a leisure activity, rather than something we should all be getting scientific about, however it is interesting to look at because the chances are that the course you choose can in some way benefit sport. Courses may include physiotherapy, psychology, materials technology, biochemistry, nutritionists, and biomechanics, (and many many more!!) and if you are a sport fanatic outside the school arena, it may be possible to combine both your loves!

A number of new technologies were used (and will be used for the Paralympic Games next week) to test for banned substances. For the first time in an Olympic Games, full-scan high-resolution mass spectrometry (an analytical technique which can determine the mass and elemental composition of a sample) to provide the most comprehensive data on the composition of the athletes’ urine samples.

One major challenge is identifying the presence of pseudo-endogenous substances, for example, as a natural hormone growth hormones are expected to be found in the blood. The University of Southampton, King’s College London and the University of Kent at Canterbury are currently developing a biomarker test that can be used over a long period of time. These biomarker proteins rise when growth hormone is administered and remain high for several weeks which can give drugs testers a longer window to opportunity to detect banned substances. 

Researchers at Northumbria University found that tricking the brain can lead to up to a 5% improvement in sports performance. In one study, trained cyclists were asked to race against an avatar they believed to be racing that the speed of the cyclist’s personal best. In fact the avatar was cycling at a speed of 1% faster. But the cyclists were able to match their opponent, in turn going faster than they had previously done. The researchers suggested that this result may be due to a reserve of energy production athletes have; in training, the athlete's mind anticipates the end of a bout of exercise to set an initial pace, and sensory receptors monitor the body’s responses and feed this information back to the brain to avoid damage. By understanding about this energy reserve, athletes can be convinced that they have that extra energy and the body can keep on performing.

At the University of Southampton, researchers are applying naval architecture techniques to understand the science of human swimming. This work has applied techniques developed for evaluating ship self-propulsion, as well as novel wireless sensors and synchronised video systems to capture the dynamic behaviour of the underwater phase of competitive swimming. The university’s Performance Sports Engineering Laboratory have been working on developing a new system for analysing swimming performance that is being used by many of the top British swimmers. When designing a ship, naval architects examine the relationship between a ship’s hull, its shape and how best to propel it through water with minimum power.

The Southampton team are using a similar approach and have developed a rig suitable for towing a swimmer through the water whilst tracking propulsive force and speed. After swimming a length, the athletes can get instant feedback on their speed, power and drag, their ultimate body position and where, on each stroke, they were strong or weak.