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Improving performance of Team GB Cyclists

Olympic athletes perform at the highest level of human capacity, and achieving further improvements is a challenging task. So, how do you improve already world-class performance? Working with the English Institute of Sport (EIS), Northumbria University is addressing this challenge through research on optimising the physical performance of Olympic and Paralympic Team GB cyclists. Through this research Northumbria has helped the EIS implement new effective, safe training practices into the routines of Team GB cyclists to support their pursuit of Olympic medal success. 

Northumbria’s Department of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation is home to the Optimising Human Performance research group, led by Professor Glyn Howatson. The group has a long-standing collaboration with the English Institute of Sport (EIS) – ‘the team behind the team’ that advance sports science and practice to ensure Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic success. In collaboration with the EIS, Northumbria’s researchers lead projects focused on delivering new knowledge to the elite sport arena, including research investigating novel training methods for British Cycling.  

After the London 2012 Olympics, sports science and sports medicine leaders identified a need to research novel, safer ways to improve cycling performance through maximising peak power output – the greatest output of work over a given amount of time. The ability to generate high levels of power directly correlate with cycling speed; the more external mechanical power a cyclist can produce, the faster the bike will go. Interventions increasing peak power output are therefore highly valued by the EIS and Team GB athletes in their search for speed.  

Historically, training interventions to improve the physical qualities that underpin peak power output have focussed on traditional heavy strength training exercises (e.g., back squats, deadlifts) to increase leg strength. However, Team GB cyclists are extremely strong, and thus these exercises require them to repeatedly handle very heavy loads on a regular basis, which places huge stress on musculoskeletal structures, particularly the spine. 

Through studies of the key determinants of peak power output, Northumbria’s team established two novel training methods that effectively improved leg strength in already elite GB cyclists. Importantly, these training methods carried less risk of injury than traditional heavy barbell strength training. Both methods were adopted by the EIS to provide new, safer ways to improve peak power output in their elite cyclists. 

Through supporting EIS practitioners and athletes in their pursuit of innovation, Northumbria’s research findings contributed to Team GB’s performance success at the Rio 2016 Olympics, enabling improvement in athletes’ performance and increasing their capacity for medal success. Northumbria’s researchers proudly continue to collaborate with the EIS in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.  

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