How Science Drives Sports Performance

August 7, 2012

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Materials science is giving athletes the tools to be more streamlined, flexible, lighter, durable and aerodynamic. At elite events like the Olympics, these advantages can make all the difference.

It was once believed that a human could never run a mile in less than four minutes, an opinion that was apparently never shared by English runner Roger Bannister, who broke the record in 1954. Since then, humans continue to break sporting records in every category. The goal of “better, stronger, faster” can be attributed, in part, to better nutrition and training, but technology and materials advances also play a major role.

Today, materials science is revolutionizing the way athletes train and compete. Pole vaulting poles have become lighter and stronger with the optimum amount of flexibility. Swimmers' bathing suits are made of materials so advanced they would have turned NASA engineers green with envy in previous decades. Running shoes have become more sophisticated, as has nearly every other type of sports accessory.

At the Olympics, where events are often won by a hundredth of a second or less, small advantages can make large differences. At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, American swimmer Michael Phelps won a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly with a time of 50.58 seconds: one one-hundredth of a second faster than Serbian silver medalist Milorad Cavic.

It's safe to say that before the advent of touch-pad sensors at the ends of lanes in Olympic pools, together with high-resolution underwater cameras, Phelps' race would have been deemed too close to call. But today, the laser-enabled timekeeping systems at the London games have the capability to measure time down to the millisecond. Runners competing at the games will be tracked by an ultra-high-tech camera that takes more than 2,000 digital images per second, truly redefining the phrase “photo finish.”

In the near future, race timing may be determined by RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology that will literally put timing devices onto the athletes themselves. Competitors might wear specially designed clothing embedded with sensors that measure speed, force, weight, thrust, torque and stress, allowing an athlete to understand how every part of his body is moving during training and enabling him to experiment with different techniques and training styles.

Technology is one of the non-human stars of the London Olympics. The primary pool used for swimming events is one of the most advanced ever built, featuring design elements that dampen waves and an “adjustable depth” feature that allows organizers to change the depth of the pool for each event.

Elite athletes have seen a number of health benefits from advances in medical materials science. Cartilage tears are dreaded by top athletes for a reason: cartilage doesn't heal as well as bone thanks to its relatively low blood supply, which can render a limb or joint less strong or flexible than it once was. To solve these problems, scientists are now testing a range of bio-compatible materials to assist in internal repair of injuries. Implanted cells and proteins could help speed healing and increase the strength of healed areas, bringing athletes back to form from injuries once considered career-ending.

In the near future, scientists may be able to determine in advance which athletes are more likely to experience sports-related injuries. While injuries are not uncommon for athletes – speed, weight, repetitive motion and strain are part of the daily routine – scientists think that some athletes are more prone to injuries thanks to genetics.

Professor Hugh Montgomery of University College London carries out research on genes and fitness, most notably the so-called “ACE” gene believed to be related to endurance.

“We have identified one gene that we think strongly influences the risk of stress fracture, which we hopefully will be publishing on this year,” Montgomery told BBC News. He believes that if science can identify particular genes associated with a higher risk of injury, athletes can tailor their training and performance to minimize risk.

Today, the world record for running a mile stands at 3:43.13, a time set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. If we've reached the limits of improving the human body itself – which El Guerrouj's 13-year-old record would seem to imply – perhaps it will be materials science that will help continue our progress.

 

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