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Team GB win five medals at the Winter Olympics

Team GB won five medals at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, setting a new record for Great Britain and hitting the target set by UK Sport, the agency responsible for directing government and National Lottery funding into elite-level sports. This record-breaking achievement was made possible not only through sizeable funding, but also through concerted investment in athlete development and their competitive performance. Working with the English Institute of Sport (EIS) and other national and local sporting bodies, the Department of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation at Northumbria University is conducting research into optimising physical performance by understanding the stress, recovery and adaptive responses to training and competition, and the results are having an impact on EIS practitioners and elite athlete success.

The ultimate aim of Northumbria’s Department of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Optimising Human Performance research group, led by Professor Glyn Howatson, Director of Research and Innovation, is to help leading athletes perform at the highest level and increase their chances of winning medals through rigorous research. To this end, the Department has established a strong working relationship with the EIS, a nationwide network dedicated to improving sporting performance through science, medicine and technology.

Initiated by Professor Howatson and supported by Dr Kevin Thomas, PhD students from the Department are embedded within EIS sites across the country. Sport practitioners in their own right, the students are in a unique position in that they support athletes in their day-to-day activities in strength and conditioning, physiology, nutrition and other scientific disciplines, and also conduct applied research to answer coaches’ questions. This dual role allows them to apply their findings directly with the athletes, coaches and practitioner teams they work with.

One ongoing area of collaboration between Northumbria and the EIS is focused on the use of interventions to help athletes recover quicker from exercise, including the application of novel cold therapies and compression garments. An outcome of this partnership has been the development of a “Recovery Tips” custom-built smartphone app for EIS athletes. Directly informed by Northumbria’s research, the app records athletes’ wellbeing and daily training load, and provides best practice information and guidelines relating to recovery. Trialled in British cycling and Paralympic swimming in the run up to Rio 2016, Recovery Tips was viewed 1,219 times by >80 athletes, a large number of whom claimed the app was effective in helping them recover from their sporting activities.

Northumbria’s influence is most evident in Olympic and Paralympic cycling; sports that have enjoyed significant recent success for Team GB. One research project conducted in collaboration with British Cycling is investigating the neuromuscular factors that influence the amount of power elite sprint cyclists can generate. Having identified key factors that affect sprint track cyclists’ performance, the project’s profiling and training protocols are now routinely used to assess and train both elite podium and academy cyclists. These Northumbria studies have also led to new training techniques being developed, which help sprint track athletes increase their peak power output and ultimately improve their performance.   

Over the course of the last two Olympic Games, Northumbria has had seven PhD students working across eight EIS high performance centres nationwide, each of whom is applying their investigations to real-world sporting settings.

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