Sports science often gets bad press, with many experienced coaches criticizing certain aspects of the discipline regularly. It’s certainly fair to say that there are many issues within sports science, but the same is true for almost every science. There are many problems within medicine, for example, and yet almost all of us still visit the doctor when there is something wrong.
I was invited recently to give a presentation at Southern Cross University in Coffs Harbour (Australia): “An Olympian’s Perspective on the Role of Sport Science and Psychology in Athlete Performance.” While preparing the presentation, I was forced to reflect both on how I used sports science during my career as well as how I now use sports science regularly in my current role.
Given the present discord with sports science in general, I thought it useful to write about these experiences and provide information on three specific areas in which sports science can be applied to help athletes reach an elite level—biomechanics, physiology, and psychology.
What Is Sports Science?
Trying to pin down the meaning of sports science is surprisingly difficult, as there is no set definition. For me, it’s the application of scientific principles to sport. Sports science is a relatively new discipline built on a foundation of other sciences, including biology (understanding how the human body works), physics and math (with equations relating to biomechanics), chemistry (recognizing a multitude of biochemical reactions), and psychology, along with small parts of other scientific fields, including sociology.
Sports science itself is a relatively fluid subject, and it’s continually evolving. We saw this perhaps five years ago with a strong shift in interest to skill acquisition research. And we’re seeing it now with an increased interest in data collection and analysis, meaning that more and more data scientists are transitioning to sport (and many sports scientists are working on upskilling in these areas).
The discipline’s on-going development can become increasingly complex with tools such as network analysis and other advanced modeling agents playing a role in our understanding of sport. These have trickle-down effects on how sports scientists work with coaches to improve performance.
This fluidity and ambiguity are demonstrated in the variety of job titles within the sports science sphere, including exercise physiologists, biomechanists, sports scientists, performance lifestyle advisors, strength and conditioning coaches, performance analysts, and sports medicine professionals. While there are people with the general job title of sports scientist, even their roles often focus on a specialty. Finally, it’s important to understand that sports science isn’t necessarily constrained to sport, with spillover into general exercise along with health and wellbeing.#SportScience lets us understand what elite athletes do, how a developing athlete compares to them, & ways to bridge the gaps, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Now that we have a working concept of what sports science is, the next step is to understand how it might help athletes achieve their potential. In discussing this, I will draw heavily from my career and experiences. My general process in using sports science to guide training is to understand what the best in the world do and where they are, where I am compared to them, and what I need to do to bridge the gaps.
The first of the “big three” sports science disciplines that can help us is biomechanics, which I loosely define as the science of describing and explaining movement. Biomechanics allows us to delve deeper into what a world-class 100m performance looks like; the IAAF has released several studies that give us an idea of the kinetics and kinematics of elite sprinting, as have other researchers.
The table below includes some of the performance data from the 2009 World Championships, taken from the official IAAF report. It shows what a World Record 100m performance looks like in terms of split data and roughly what is required for a sub-10 performance. Perhaps the most useful data is the 0-30m split and the 30-60m split—which we can use as a proxy for a flying 30m run. Looking at athletes of different standards, we can get a reasonable idea of what it takes to perform at a given level.
As an athlete who was active in 2009, I could compare my performances directly to these benchmarks. At that time, we used an electronic block timing system that gave us 10m- and 30m-split data, in which my best was 3.98s. I also regularly collected flying 30m data, tested with a 30m roll-in. It was directly representative of the 30-60m split from the IAAF data, where my best time was 2.70s.
The data showed that I had a big gap in the 0-30m split. Allowing about 0.1s for competition, I was performing at the standard of a 10.20s runner, around 0.05s from a sub-10 runner, and about 0.1s from the WR performance.
Extrapolating my 2.70s training performance to 2.65s in competition, I was at the level of a sub-10 100m runner (even though my personal best was only 10.14s)—suggesting I should prioritize working on my first 30m. Other useful data is the 80-100m split, which offers insight into speed maintenance and endurance. Although I didn’t collect this data in training, I could have done so easily to see how my performances compared.
Building on our knowledge of what elite performance looks like in terms of split data—and how we might use this knowledge to compare our own performances—the next step is to understand the constituents of elite performance and how we compare.
Sprinting is primarily composed of step length and step frequency. We know from both the IAAF data and data reported elsewhere (including Ralph Mann’s excellent The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling) that elite 100m runners have a typical step length of around 2.5 meters at maximum velocity, with a step frequency of around 4.5 Hz (i.e., they take around 4.5 steps per second).
As athletes, we can see how we compare to these values. During my career, we did this through a combination of in-competition biomechanical analysis and training analysis. The training analysis was typically done using OptoJump, a system of plastic blocks that join together and span either side of the lane in which you run. The OptoJump system sends out lasers across the track surface that are broken by your steps, giving you data on step length, step frequency, and ground contact time. The data allows you to see where you are in terms of performance in these variables and identifies areas for improvement.
Data from the 2008 British Olympic Trials 100m final, for example, showed that my step length in that race was 2.36m. I came third in that race, running 10.19s. The first two athletes ran 10.00s and 10.03s, respectively, with step lengths of 2.52m. Their step lengths were more indicative of world-class than mine, suggesting another potential area for improvement.
The next question, then, is how you might improve your step length? Once again, biomechanical analysis of the world’s best allows us to understand the components that feed into this. The best sprinters tend to achieve a greater thigh flexion angle, which means they’re better at getting their knee forward and through in front of the body. This action necessitates limiting the action of the leg behind the body, driving a focus on front side—as opposed to rear side—mechanics.
The increased thigh flexion angle increases the range of motion through which sprinters accelerate the foot toward the ground, increasing the speed and force at ground contact. These actions reduce ground contact time (which in world-class 100m runners is typically around 0.09s) and increase vertical force production—again, something that we know elite sprinters are very good at due to force plate analysis.#Biomechanics helps us describe, explain, and achieve elite sprint performance, says @craig100m. #SportScience Click To Tweet
As you can see, the sports science discipline of biomechanics is very useful in describing and explaining elite sprint performance, since we can:
- Use this information to compare ourselves to elite performance
- Identify specific areas for improvement
- Identify what an “optimal” technique looks like based on key performance factors
During my career, I also found biomechanists useful on a more day-to-day basis. For example, here is a video of me training in 2010:
Video 1. A clip of me training in 2010, allowing for biomechanical analysis.
The context behind this video is that I had changed coaches in September 2010, and my new coach had a different technical model. Because the model was primarily built around front side mechanics, the main technical changes were actively pulling my foot in off the ground to maintain my sprinting action in front of my body and focusing on achieving a 90-degree thigh flexion angle (for reasons explained above).
While these technical changes may sound simple, altering an ingrained running technique—one that I had developed over 23 years—was very difficult. One of my main challenges was building up the kinesthetic feel of the movement. What would it feel like when I was running properly by achieving the right positions versus running incorrectly? Developing this internal feel was important because it would enable me to self-maintain my new technique. Regular use of high-speed video, like the one above, was hugely useful. I could do a run, remember how it felt, and then check the video to see whether the running action was right or wrong.
High-speed video also helped me spot technique issues that might limit my performance. By slowing down a movement and providing more frames (i.e., images) per second than can be detected by the naked human eye, video lets us see our performance better—and does so from multiple angles.
We can also use high-speed video to check technique by exploring joint angles. For example, in the below photo, our biomechanist determined the joint angles at my front and rear knees in the set position. This is useful in many ways. Again, it allows me to compare myself to the optimum position and to see how stable my movement is.
If I do ten block starts, how often do I achieve these positions—am I consistent or highly variable? This is important because a more stable movement resists change when we’re stressed, fatigued, or nervous. If I always achieve these block angles in training, I know there’s a pretty good chance I’ll do it consistently in competition, too.
Using physiology, we apply our knowledge of the human body to drive specific adaptations that can enhance performance. Within sprinting, we use this knowledge to optimize loading during resistance training, improving our capacity to produce the force required to sprint faster. We can also use physiology to develop our robustness and reduce the chances of injury.#Physiology helps us optimize resistance training load so we can produce more force to sprint faster, says @craig100m. #SportScience Click To Tweet
As a specific example, hamstring injuries are exceptionally common in all sports that require running, typically making up 25% of all non-contact injuries. We want to reduce the occurrence of hamstring injuries in athletes, especially when we know that missing training due to injury makes it much less likely to achieve your training goal.
Fortunately, a team of researchers from Australia has done some pioneering work in this area. We now know many of the risk factors associated with hamstring injuries, including reduced eccentric hamstring strength, shorter hamstring muscle fascicles, and previous hamstring injury. Based on this research, we also know that increasing eccentric hamstring muscle strength and muscle fascicle length can help reduce the risk and prevalence of hamstring injuries.
This has been well explored experimentally for exercises such as the Nordic hamstring exercise and the Yo-Yo hamstring curl. Both exercises have a large eccentric component and are effective at reducing the prevalence of hamstring injuries in athletes, likely by increasing eccentric strength and hamstring muscle fascicle length. With these results confirmed at the meta-analysis level (the highest possible level of scientific evidence), we know to include some form of eccentric hamstring exercise in our sprint training program.
Speaking from experience, I dealt with several hamstring injuries in my junior career, suffering from four separate hamstring injuries in my two years in the under-17 age group. Once I added the Romanian deadlift and Nordic hamstring exercises—both of which have a large eccentric component—my hamstring issues largely cleared up. As I progressed and grew more confident, these exercises gradually fell out of my program until 2008 when I suffered a very bad hamstring tear. At that point, I re-introduced them and no longer had any hamstring issues.
There are, however, potential issues with eccentric loading exercises in sport. Eccentric exercises cause a lot of soreness, especially when athletes first start doing them. While this soreness response is reduced and essentially disappears with repeated exposures (called the repeated bout effect), in many sports, athletes don’t like using eccentric loading exercises. And some researchers—although it’s important to mention not many—don’t necessarily believe that the hamstring muscles act eccentrically (or don’t primarily act eccentrically) during sprint running and instead act isometrically. This is quite hard to test experimentally.We know many risk factors for hamstring injuries & how to reduce them with eccentric & isometric exercises because of #SportScience, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Interestingly, isometric hamstring exercises also appear to reduce the risk of hamstring injuries in sport. More athletes may adhere to these exercises because post-exercise soreness will be lower, although the level of evidence is not as strong as for the Nordic hamstring and other eccentric exercises. And while they’re not “better” for improving eccentric muscle strength and muscle fascicle length, the isometric exercises might be more effective because they can be carried out more frequently and more widely.
This is a great example of two of my favorite things about sports science: the importance of context and the influence of nuance. While we might understand the biological mechanisms and other aspects of a certain intervention, we don’t know the true effects until it’s used in the real world. That’s when we get a better idea of its long-term implications and how athletes interact with the intervention—with aspects such as athlete belief impacting the effectiveness of any changes we might make.
Other examples include the use of ice baths following exercise. The evidence now is pretty solid that post-exercise cold water immersion can enhance recovery, or at least reduce feelings of perceived soreness and fatigue. However, ice baths may be so good at improving recovery that they reduce the adaptations we get from exercise. This is because the improvements we see from exercise are partially driven by aspects such as muscle damage, oxidative stress, and inflammation—all things that cold water immersion may reduce.
As such, most sports scientists now recommend a time and a place for ice baths. When recovery is important—such as during the competitive season—perhaps we should use ice baths, especially if the athlete believes in them. However, when training adaptation is the main goal—primarily during the off-season—we should likely minimize ice bath use.
Similar results are reported for antioxidant supplements. While antioxidants are a good thing in general, taking high-dose antioxidant supplements around training can blunt training adaptations. It’s a great example of how more of something that is good for you is not always better.
I have a confession to make: I used to think that sports psychology was largely fluff, and at university, it was the sub-discipline I found least interesting. It was all very theoretical, as opposed to black and white, with right and wrong answers. However, I’ve experienced a complete 180-degree shift—I now find that sports psychology may make the biggest difference between athletes who win medals and those who don’t.Sport psychology may make the biggest difference between athletes who win medals and those who don’t, says @craig100m. #SportPsychology Click To Tweet
My journey toward better appreciating the true value of sports psychology started at the 2003 World Under-18 Championships, where I was selected in the 100m. This was my first true global competition, and I went in with reasonably low expectations, hoping to sneak into the final. From the heats, however, I was the fastest qualifier. And having run a personal best, I became a realistic medal prospect.
This caused a significant shift in my expectations, and as a result, I became much more anxious about my performance. In the semi-finals, this anxiety significantly hampered my performance, and I qualified for the finals in the last available “fastest loser” spot. Fortunately, one of the team coaches managed to turn me around, and in the final I ran much better, placing third.
Following these championships, I reflected on my performance and decided I’d better do something about my pre-race anxiety. As a result, I decided to work with a sports psychologist. In our first session, we talked about my pre-race nerves, and I discussed how negative they were and that being nervous pre-race was a bad thing.
The sports psychologist, however, had a different perspective. Feeling nervous was good, she said, because it meant that the race mattered, and the physiological effects of being anxious meant that my performance would improve. As stupid as this may sound, this piece of advice flicked a switch in my brain. By framing my pre-race anxiety as good rather than bad, I began to embrace the feeling—so much so that, as my career progressed, I needed to feel nervous and anxious to perform at my best.
At the World Under-18 Championships, I also learned the importance of representative practice—ensuring that your training accurately mimics the conditions in which you’ll compete. The World Under-18s were held in Sherbrooke, Canada, in July—typically a hot month. When we arrived, it was very warm, but on the day of my competition, I awoke to heavy rain showers and cold.
The weather was exactly what the long winters were like in the UK, so I was used to training in conditions like this. As a result, I performed very well. However, other athletes struggled with the conditions. The world number one that year was from Nigeria, and he was eliminated in the semi-finals. After that race, he told me he had never been as cold as he was during that race in his life. I’ve written more widely about representative practice in an earlier post, and it’s worth keeping in mind when designing your training sessions.
Other important psychological lessons I learned were the importance of not having it too easy. As a developing athlete, I was surrounded by other very successful athletes. And while I was consistently ranked very high on the all-time list as I progressed through the age groups, I often lost races. This meant that I was exposed to disappointment and failure, learned how to deal with both, and used them to spur me on to future success.
However, we often see talented youngsters who win easily and, as a result, they don’t learn how to deal with loss and disappointment. As they progress into the senior ranks—where losses are much more common—they haven’t developed the skills to deal with this.Making things too easy for an athlete limits their development, yet many athlete development programs do just this, says @craig100m. #SportPsychology Click To Tweet
It’s quite similar to the “rocky road” model of talent development, where talent often responds well to trauma. The key to athlete development programs, therefore, is to provide structured trauma in a way that encourages an athlete to grow and develop. Making things too easy for the athlete limits their development, and yet many athlete development programs are guilty of just this.
Hopefully, I’ve shown that sports science has the potential to impact an athlete’s performance significantly. As someone who competed to a high level, I found the application of sports science detailed here to be invaluable in assisting my performance development.
Alongside the big three disciplines of biomechanics, physiology, and psychology, other sub-disciplines, such as nutrition and skill acquisition, are emerging. Each has the potential to enhance athletic preparation further.
While much maligned, sports science can help athletes of all levels reach their potential when it’s used properly—with a full understanding of the individual nuances and contexts. I’m a strong believer in the power of sports science, and I’m excited to see how the field develops.