Enhancing Sport Performance

The 2008 Olympic Games have now begun, and we are all focused on the performance of our athletes. We asked some leading New Zealand experts to share their thoughts on how Kiwi competitors are enhancing and optimising their performance at the Beijing Olympic Games this year.

Professor Will Hopkins from the Institute of Sport and Recreation Research New Zealand at AUT University comments on factors that can impact on sport performance, and what the future holds for breaking records.

“The Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius, or faster, higher, stronger.  For many Olympic events we should add dexterius, or more skilful, but I will limit my comments to the factors that are likely to impact on purely physical athletic performance.

In terms of individual differences in performance, gender is a key factor. Men will always be more athletic than women, as testosterone increases blood volume, promotes bigger muscles, and results in a bigger training effect.  Women can compete equally with men only by taking steroids! Genetics can also account for differences in attributes that affect performance, such as blood volume for endurance athletes, and size of feet for swimmers. (Remember the Thorpedo?)  And of course training also has an important effect, but people who think it explains everything haven’t read the literature properly: if anything, training increases differences between individuals. The factors that limit an individual’s performance depend on the duration of the performance: they include muscle activation for explosive events, muscle metabolism for sprints, oxygen supply for endurance, and fuel supply for ultraendurance.

When it comes to the Olympic finals, the reasons for the differences between athletes are unclear, but heredity, training, drugs, nutrition, psychology and chance are all likely to play a part, possibly in that order.

Improvement in athletic performance over the years is partly down to improvements in training techniques. Improved nutrition during development has also allowed individuals to reach their genetic potential. However, probably more important is the statistical effect of more participation making more “outliers”.

So what does the future hold?  Can we continue to break word records? In my view, records will improve for decades to come, as the right genes come together in individuals, especially when both parents are athletes. In that regard, it’s better if sprint athletes do not breed with endurance athletes! As new beneficial mutations in performance genes find their way to top athletes, we might even see the evolution of several subspecies: homo sapiens citius, homo sapiens fortius and homo sapiens dexterius…”

Ien Hellemans is a registered dietitian and an expert in nutrition and sport. She works with the NZ Olympic Triathlon team, and was involved in developing hydration strategies for the whole NZ team in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. She was also the nutritionist for the NZ Olympic Team in Athens, being based in the Athlete Village with the team. She currently lectures on sport and exercise nutrition at the Department of Human Nutrition, University of Otago. She comments here on nutrition in the Olympic Arena – feeding the fittest.

“When a hundredth of a second can make the difference between winning and losing, as it does in the Olympic arena, you don’t want to leave anything to chance, and using the right dietary strategies is a key issue for our athletes.

The role of nutrition for Olympic athletes is multi-faceted and varied, depending on the type of sport and specific event. To perform the extreme and often multiple efforts required, our sporting icons may need up to twice the amount of energy an ordinary person consumes. Also, in the sweltering heat and energy sapping humidity of Beijing, it’s easy to lose a whopping 2-3 litres of sweat per hour. To combat this and avoid excessive dehydration, athletes use carefully designed fluid plans.

Another key factor is the correct timing of food and fluid intake, to optimise pre-exercise glycogen (fuel) stores and maximize the rate of recovery post exercise. Some of our athletes compete in special weight classes too, and need to make weight. This is primarily achieved through dietary manipulation.

At the elite level, athletes have a good understanding of their nutritional needs; most work with a personal sports nutritionist and by combining science based knowledge with experimentation in training and competition they learn what works best for them.

So, now the Olympic Games are here, it should be a simple matter of putting in practice what our athletic heroes know works for them. Unfortunately, it may not be as easy as that. Our athletes are under enormous pressure to perform; the whole country is watching them and willing them to win. This pressure cooker environment can easily distract athletes from the basics, like staying focused on eating the right diet. And then there is the Olympic dining hall, roughly the size of two football fields, open 24 hours, with a phenomenal choice of food, all free of charge. And to make it even more challenging, there is plenty of sponsored product available, and two of the major Olympic sponsors are McDonalds and Coca-Cola!

On a positive note, I am confident that the food in the dining hall will be safe to eat; the American catering company contracted to feed the fittest people on earth has done so since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, they know their game. So all eyes are now on our athletes’ – let the Games begin. Go Kiwi!”

Richard Young is a performance consultant, working in the area of technology, research and innovation at Sport & Recreation New Zealand (SPARC). He comments here on hydration strategies for our athletes at the Beijing Olympics.

“Core temperature is critical for athletes’ performance.  Particularly in the longer, high workload events an athlete can reach core temperature threshold and there is nothing they can do voluntarily once this critical point is reached.  Staggering athletes can be a common site at the end of a marathon in hot humid conditions and Paula Radcliffe is one of the more famous examples.

Before this point is reached however an athlete does have a few key aspects within their control: pre-event acclimatisation, warm-up strategy, pre-event cooling and hydration.

Proper hydration is critical to a winning athlete and vital when you consider how fast an athlete will heat up if they have no way of releasing heat.  Sweating is our way of releasing heat (just like panting is for some animals) our sweat response is a miracle of evolution.  Our ancestors survived by tracking animals who couldn’t sweat, and there is only one winner when you can’t offload heat.  The same goes for sport.

The majority of healthy people adequately meet their daily hydration needs by letting thirst be their guide.  In sport water alone and thirst as the guide are not always adequate.  There are many drinks on the market with some ingredients important to maintain energy and hydration for athletes (and some very unimportant but good for marketing).

The basic formulation of a sports drink can be all or a combination of:
a)    Hydration: e.g. water base, electrolyte composition.
b)    Energy: e.g. carbohydrate, protein, fat, caloric value.
c)    Additional nutrients: e.g. vitamins and minerals.
d)    ‘Stimulation’: e.g. caffeine (plus some have other herbal additions – with limited scientific justification).

We decided for the Olympic team to create our own drink, free of what an athlete doesn’t need and free of any possible contamination.  We created this drink, and additional components with Horleys and researchers at the University of Otago.  We calculated rations of enhanced electrolytes matched to a timing chart for each event of ‘when to drink what’.

Each sport was broken down into events and each event broken down into hourly segments from 4 hours before to 1 hour after.  The overall training programme would be assessed also to determine when and how an athlete should hydrate in the weeks and months preceding competition.  Taste testing and training testing of any new drink was important well in advance of any competition.  Overall the New Zealand athletes were advised on hydration plan and provided the Horleys Beijing product if they required.”

Raechel Laing, Professor in Clothing and Textile Sciences at the University of Otago, comments here on some key considerations for clothing and textiles in Beijing.

“Clothing worn by sports men and women during competitive events at this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing has been carefully considered.  Requirements differ enormously depending on whether the event is indoors or outdoors, whether in or on water, the duration of event, and importantly, specifications of the sporting code.  The IOC rules in terms of logos, and levels of protection permitted and required must be met.
Those competing outdoors, for example, face conditions which are hot and humid – high ambient temperatures, high humidity and absolute humidity.  Under these conditions clothing/textiles need to have low thermal resistance (typically a thin fabric), have an ‘open’ structure, and the garment be of a design which minimises the body surface-area covered. Fabrics which are light in weight, and which dry quickly after becoming wet or damp are preferred.  To illustrate the complexity, consider two examples:
• clothing the triathlete  – requirements for elite performance during running, cycling, swimming requirements all differ;
• clothing for dressage – all but the head and neck area are covered, so many general principles for minimising heat stress are thwarted by these dress requirements of the code.

Attempting to remain cool prior to events is important (through using cooling vests, or damp towels, as appropriate), and practical aspects of servicing requires that clothing be fully machine-washable, will drip dry quickly, and will be reasonably crease resistant.
Clothing decisions are clearly more than sponsorship and branding.”

To talk to these or any other scientists about sport and performance, please contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz.

Notes to Editors
The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz.