Katie Ledecky’s dominance in the pool this summer at the Rio Olympics has left many wondering, “What’s her secret?” Over the years, athletes in almost every sport have been getting faster and stronger, blowing away world records and setting new standards for what the human body can do. Competing more strategically gives an edge: Jumping backward, for example, has allowed high jumpers to reach new heights. Equipment helps too: Swimmers wearing Speedo’s full-body swimsuit broke so many world records at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that the suit was banned the next year. Some of these advancements, like high jumping’s back-first approach, come from the athletes, but many others emerge from the work of sports scientists. It’s a world that offers a behind-the-scenes look at humans performing nearly superhuman feats, with accompanying rewards—and pressure. Here are the experiences of three scientists in that world.
Getting on board
Jason White watches every televised race that the U.S. rowing team competes in. “I won’t miss an event,” says the assistant professor of kinesiology at George Mason University’s Science and Technology Campus in Manassas, Virginia. He never rowed himself; his dedication to the sport comes from his undergraduate adviser at Ohio University, exercise physiologist Fritz Hagerman, who began working with the U.S. team in the late 1960s. (Hagerman passed away in 2013.) White and Hagerman connected only because the university started requiring students to see their advisers before registering for classes, White says. But once White got involved in Hagerman’s work, he was impressed by the sport’s physical demands and the athletes’ toughness. “I stuck with it ever since,” he says.
These days, White collects physiological data on U.S. rowers to help them train for the Olympics and world championships (although he wasn’t able to help the team train for the Rio de Janeiro Games because he had moved universities during the training season and was in the process of building his staff). He has worked with the national team since 2004, first helping Hagerman collect data and then becoming the lead in 2008.
Over the course of the training season, he and his team measure parameters such as heart rate, blood lactate level, and oxygen consumed to help coaches understand how each rower is progressing and compares to the rest of the team. The data can also be used to strategize, for example, how to adjust a rower’s training regimen for peak performance in an upcoming race. This level of data-driven training has recently caught on in professional sports, such as the Catapult system made popular by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors that tracks the players’ movements and the forces on their bodies, but “we’ve been doing this for years,” White says.
Rowing isn’t as well financed as other sports, so funding can be tight. At times White has done the work for the U.S. team for no charge, but he keeps his lab going with funding from other projects, such as a study he did for an elliptical bike maker to examine whether the product maintained fitness in high-level athletes, working with collegiate teams, and donations from former rowers. And despite the fact that his work with the rowers sometimes offers little financial return, White finds other rewards. “You kind of feel like you’re helping your country a little bit; you’re doing your little part,” he says.
Over the years, White has gotten to know the coaches and many of the athletes on the team. “They treat me like one of their own—crack jokes, mess with me, have a good time,” he says. “It’s really great.” There’s also a bond that forms when you’ve participated in an athlete’s journey, he says. Especially after experiencing the rowers’ dedication and capabilities firsthand, he says, “I want to see them succeed.” It’s “not like your children,” but the connection is something close.
“I’ve always been interested in sports, playing sports, studying sports,” says Mike Caine, a professor of sports technology and innovation at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and the dean of the university’s London campus. Designing gear for elite athletes may seem like a dream job for a sports enthusiast like Caine, who has had several career highlights working with elite athletes, including working on the helmet that skeleton bobsledder Amy Williams wore when she won the gold medal during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. But, he notes, this type of work involves more pressure than most people expect. Professional sports are not glamorous fun. “It’s a serious business,” he says. “Training is hard, recovery is painful. Success is important.” When watching athletes compete with the equipment he has helped develop, “you’re just hoping they won’t get let down,” he says. “When they do win, you feel momentarily pleased,” but mostly it’s anxiety.
Elite athletes are demanding and have very specific wants and needs, he says. They’re busy and have a limited amount of time to interact and give feedback, which can slow the development process. Some elite athletes are conservative and unwilling to consider new designs if they think that what they’re already using works well. Getting athletes and their coaches to try his designs was a journey, Caine says. When he was developing a way to use 3D printing to make custom sprinting shoes, for example, he had to build trust before the athletes would try the shoe. To do so, he got the athletes involved early in the development process and framed them as advisers on the project instead of subjects in a focus group. “There was a lot of psychology involved,” he says. But the work came together: His team was the first to show that the concept worked, and now it’s the basis of the production processes at some major brands, including New Balance.
Elite athletes aren’t Caine’s only target audience. Most of the projects he has worked on involve developing sports gear for recreational users, ranging from improving a company’s manufacturing process to creating an entirely new product. Elite athletes value performance with little consideration for cost, but everyday users look for a balance of function and affordability. Coming up with high-performance designs that are economically priced is a creative puzzle that Caine particularly enjoys. He also finds it rewarding to solve some of the other challenges unique to products for recreational users, including figuring out how to simplify a product to make the sport easier or how to make a product affordable enough for children, he says. Some of the companies that he has worked with have a singular focus on increasing profits that can get disheartening at times, he acknowledges, but “on a good day, sports can be a force to change people’s lives for the better.”
Don’t sweat it
Athletes training for 2.5 hours in the heat of August can lose up to 3 to 5 liters of sweat. Their performance will decline if they lose more than 2% of their body mass from the sweating, so they need to make sure to drink enough fluid to replace what’s lost. This is the kind of nutrition and hydration advice that Lindsay Baker sought as a high school athlete. At the time, she read the sports science literature to find ways to help her performance. Now she’s the one dispensing this type of advice to other athletes as a scientist at Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) in Barrington, Illinois.
It’s a good fit, Baker says about her job. Outside of sports, she was always interested in science and math, and in college she turned those interests into a bachelor’s degree in biology. She then combined her science background with her athletic one to earn a Ph.D. in kinesiology. She did not have a specific career goal in mind at the time, she says, but she knew that she wanted to work with athletes and conduct research to help them improve their performance. GSSI offered her the opportunity to do just that.
The work can get sweaty. Hydration needs vary by exercise intensity, temperature conditions, and body size, so to tailor recommendations, Baker and her colleagues measure sweat rate and electrolyte concentrations in athletes’ sweat, which they collect by taping absorbent pads onto the athletes’ skin. Baker’s work focuses on comparing the results from this method to those from the gold standard procedure, in which all of an athlete’s sweat is collected, not just a sample, and developing protocols for getting the most accurate results from these absorbent pad-based measurements. Being constantly surrounded by sweat may conjure up visions of damp, smelly locker rooms, but it “doesn’t bother me,” Baker says. As a competitive athlete in high school and college, sweat was just an everyday part of her life, she says. It’s also an important way that the body keeps itself cool during exercise, she adds. “Sweating is a good thing!”
Connecting with the athletes is rewarding, she says. They are looking for an edge, just like she was when she was competing. So she passes on the advice she would have appreciated receiving when she was an athlete, and her research ensures that the recommendations are as sound as possible.