Jessica Ennis-Hill

Faster Higher Stronger - and Smarter

Great Britain are hoping to win their biggest haul of medals at an overseas Olympics this summer in Rio. We visit the National Performance Centre at Bisham Abbey to speak to the technology experts who helped prepare British athletes for the Games.

When cross-country skier Jean Watson was preparing for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, she had to work out her own training routines, particularly when there was no snow around during the summer. She also had to find her own fitness trainer, and if she wanted to know the right food to eat, she’d have to research it at the library – of course, there was no Internet back then – or see a nutritionist and pay for it herself.

Watson also had to pay for physiotherapy and osteopath treatment when she got injured. There was no personal trainer to make sure she got up at 5am each day to train before she went to work and no one to make sure she went back into the gym when the work day was over.

Watson was her own support staff. Certainly there was no technological assistance to help her maximise her performance and keep track of how she was doing.

Today, Jean Watson is the English Institute of Sport (EIS) operations manager at the Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre in Buckinghamshire. EIS is a government- and lottery-funded organisation that provides sport science and medical support services to elite athletes. Watson oversees the running of the EIS high-performance centre at Bisham – the place England football teams used to go to for training camps before the FA built St George’s Park.

This year, during the run-up to the Rio Olympic Games, around 300 Olympic hopefuls have been visiting the centre regularly. Every sport has its own coaches, medical and support staff – from statisticians to hypnotherapists. Athletes come to Bisham to access additional medical, fitness and sport science support.

“An athlete can use our high-performance gym, work with strength and fitness coaches,” Watson says. “If they’re injured, they can have a scan or blood tests and get the results on the same day. Doctors, physios, consultants can talk to the athlete, each other and about the issue and come up with potential solutions.”

When Watson was competing, it would have taken most of the year to get that many medical practitioners to talk to each other. In the outside world, it probably still would.

Fine-tune that fitness

There’s more to preparation these days than just perfecting skills and working on tactics. Gone are the days when boxers ran up steps to get fit, or put their foot in an ice bucket when they hurt their ankle.

Sport is about movement, and movement is about the human body. In 2016, preparation for sport is about developing an athlete’s body so that everything works towards optimum performance. It’s a bit like fine-tuning a luxury car.

Athletes have to constantly improve their strength, speed, endurance and stamina, whatever their particular sport demands. How an athlete runs, breathes and sleeps can also affect their performance and must be monitored. So too must their potential for injury, and if they’re already injured, their recovery and rehabilitation. All this needs lots of data and that of course means technology.

Chris McLeod, EIS lead strength and conditioning coach, explains that coaches from specific sports send athletes to the centre for work on a specific area. The athlete does the work, centre staff gather data and tell the athlete’s coach their findings. Sometimes however, the information gathered might also highlight that the athlete needs work in other areas.

“We are trying to better understand human performance through gaining more insight into how individuals’ bodies move,” McLeod says. “Data and how we use the information is a part of how we better understand what’s going on with a particular athlete.”

Snapshots for speed

McLeod spends a lot of his time in the Centre’s high-performance gym. Here, he uses Optojump Next, an optical measurement system to get real-time feedback on how athletes are running: their gait, their speed, stride length and the time they spend in contact with the surface at each step. 

Optojump Next is two transmitting and receiving bars either side of the gym’s 40m warm-up running track. Each bar contains 96 LEDs, at 1cm resolution, and they communicate continuously with each other.

The system detects any interruptions in communication between the bars and calculates their duration. This makes it possible to measure flight and contact times with an accuracy of one thousandth of a second and provide a profile of how the athlete sprints.

“You can see how different athletes do things in slightly different ways,” McLeod explains. Small cameras, positioned as desired, record images of the tests performed, enabling cross-checking between data and images and video analysis. A strength and conditioning coach can then provide real-time feedback on a nearby video screen about the optimum running style for that particular athlete.

“The athlete can see what has changed about their running style, if, say, they’ve just come back from injury and without realising it, they are taking weight off the injured part of their body,” says McLeod, “or, if the injury is causing them to move slightly differently.”

McLeod adds that giving real-time feedback helps focus the athletes on what’s important now and helps them recognise the difference between what it might feel like they’re doing and the reality of the situation.

Rather than the athlete doing their training and the coach providing feedback later, the coach can instead give the athlete feedback immediately to enable them to make the most of the current session.

Also in the EIS high- performance gym, force plates – floor pads containing sensors – help coaches find out how much strength the athlete has and how much power they can generate.

Here, the ability to jump is an indicator of an athlete’s strength rather than something they need to be able to do when they perform. “It shows what they’ve got that might transfer to how they sprint, row or play their sport,” McLeod says.

The EIS high-performance centre at Bisham Abbey opened in 2003. It’s one of nine sites around the country where elite athletes go for specialist training and rehabilitation. There are others in Birmingham, Bath, Loughborough, Lee Valley, Lilleshall, Milton Keynes, Manchester and Sheffield. Each is located near the home base of one or more Olympic or Paralympic sports. Cycling is based in Manchester near the Velodrome and badminton at Milton Keynes. Rowing, canoeing and hockey come to Bisham.

Watson explains that an injured athlete gets referred to the EIS if their sport thinks that they can’t move the athlete’s situation on. “Their own physios and strength and conditioning coaches are working with anything from 35 to 40 people in a squad. If an athlete requires more intensive work or need surgery, they’ll come here,” she says.

Watson adds: “It’s not that we’re not better than the medical staff with the individual sports; we just have more time to look into minute detail of what’s going on with an athlete.”

Big data for big wins

The centre’s physiology laboratory consists of an exercise and testing area, an environmental chamber that can simulate higher altitude, heat, or moist, muggy conditions, and a blood chemistry area. EIS sport science technician Luke Gupta explains that heart rate, blood tests and oxygen data can provide important clues to an athlete’s fitness.

“Rowers’ ability to use oxygen efficiently is what makes them good at what they do,” he says. “If rowers can use a lower amount of oxygen at a higher intensity, they can train harder and perform faster in a race.”

To work out how much oxygen an athlete consumes at certain levels of exercise intensity, technicians connect a rowing machine (or for different sports, a bike or treadmill) to an Oxycon gas analysis system. They then attach a mouthpiece or face mask to the athlete and take them through a range of movements from low intensity to all-out effort. The data is collected through the mouthpiece and sent to a computer for analysis.

“You can’t do this on the water,” Gupta adds. “The rowing stroke is not conducive to wearable technology.”

Gupta explains that blood lactate analysis measures an athlete’s red blood cell count. This helps to work out who might struggle at altitude, where there’s less oxygen and the body has to adapt by creating more red blood cells. Saliva analysis tests for stress hormones, and in the rehab centre a Biodex machine gathers data about an injured athlete’s range of movement.

Athletes recovering from injury can also train on an anti-gravity treadmill. Inside, their weight is reduced and they can get their movement patterns back without putting additional stress on their body.

Gupta’s specialist area is sleep. He is currently researching a PhD with Loughborough University on the effect of a good or bad night’s sleep on elite athletic performance. Something, he says, that has not been studied before.
You snooze, you... win?

“Sleep is the most important recovery tool, but we don’t know much about sleep in elite athletes.” he says. “Every other part is monitored – training, nutrition. People just take sleep for granted. They are not aware of whether they sleep well, or if they’re getting the right type of sleep.”

Gupta uses a wrist band containing an accelerometer to estimate sleep by monitoring how much the athlete moves when they are sleeping. He explains that some people do lie in bed perfectly still, but their eyes are wide open and their brain is still going. The watch won’t detect that.

To get a more detailed picture, Gupta attaches electrodes to a certain part of the athlete’s head, one above their eyes to measure eye movement and one below the chin monitors muscle activity. The athlete then goes to sleep in one of the hotel rooms at the centre, while the technology measures brain waves at 30-second intervals.

“If the data shows that an athlete isn’t getting enough sleep – and the right amount will vary for each individual – we can put in place intervention programmes to put that right,” he explains.

This could include the athlete training earlier in the day, changing what they eat or drink, or simply turning down the lights in their bedroom at night. Gupta adds: “If there’s a sleep disorder or if the athlete isn’t sleeping because they are depressed, we’ll get the medical people involved to help find a solution.”

Competitive technology

Just as athletes compete with their counterparts around the world to win medals, so too does the EIS try to stay ahead of the competition worldwide.

“We want to see what else is out there, new ways of getting athletes to better understand what to do or how they do their training,” Jean Watson says. “Our research staff ask questions of different sports, find out what they need to make things better, go away and look at that and talk to universities with specific expertise.

“Sometimes, if we resolve a certain question, that could mean a gold medal.”

Organisations like EIS keep the details of their latest research to themselves and away from competing nations. “It might come out after the games,” Jean Watson says, “unless no one else has got it. Then, we’ll keep it as close to the chest as possible.”

When Jean Watson competed in the Olympics, an athlete simply trained as hard as they could, gathered what information they could find, turned up at the Games, and hoped for the best.

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