As a practitioner and researcher in high performance sport, I have often had the “science vs practice” debate in applying scientific research in an elite athlete performance environment. In an attempt to bridge that gap with my PhD research, I realised I needed to minimise the impact of data collection and maximise the benefits sooner rather than later. My research and physiological support work dove-tailed allowing me to collect data in the background and provide physiology support to Paralympics Ireland athletes. I also had the opportunity to travel as the physiologist for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and collect research data at the same time.
RESEARCHER AND PHYSIOLOGIST
I started working in the Sport Ireland Institute in 2012 on the Mentee Training programme after completing my MSc Exercise Physiology in Loughborough University. As part of the mentee programme, I had the opportunity to be involved with a wide range of sports and experience working with high performance athletes in all aspects of physiological input including lab and field based testing, training session monitoring, physiology support at home and abroad training camps and also at competition. In 2013, I began working as an intern physiologist: moving from gaining experience to running testing and leading physiology support with sports. In 2014, I began a PhD jointly funded between Sport Ireland Institute and Paralympics Ireland. The title of my research is “Load Monitoring in Elite Paralympic Athletes: Implications for Training, Recovery, Well-being and Performance”.
My research formed part of the key physiological input with Paralympics Ireland athletes in preparing for Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. I was already working with a Paralympic athlete population and that gave me the opportunity to design my research plan around their support programme. I had good working relationships with the coaches and ensured I integrated any potential research proposals to the physiological input already in place.
I looked to address the “training quality vs training quantity” paradigm and the impact on training days lost to injury and illness. Research data became part of weekly training load monitoring report sent to coaches and athletes with data flagged and modifications made to training sessions where needed. On-going athlete testing throughout the year gave me an opportunity to provide physiological feedback on the progress of the athletes and their training programmes and also collect physiological data to support my research.
RIO 2016 PARALMYPIC GAMES
A major part of both my physiology and research work was the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. My role as physiologist is to minimise the impact of travel on training and competition performance using pre-planned and scientifically based strategies. These can include pre-travel adjusting of the body clock, in flight routine including sleep and wakening times, initiatives to reduce travel fatigue and acclimation upon arrival in Brazil. The research data informed many of these strategies as we had established long-term baseline measures which could be used to individualise strategies to specific athletes. It also gave us norm values for athletes that were used to identify those recovered and ready to train or those who required additional recovery following travel. During the holding camp my primary focus was the recovery from travel fatigue, acclimation and monitoring training sessions in the final preparations for competition.
The 2016 Paralympic Games were held in Rio de Janeiro, with over 4300 athletes competing and representing 160 countries (IPC, 2016). We arrived to the athlete village on Friday September 2nd 2016. Having been in Brazil for two weeks at that point, the focus of physiological input moved from travel to session monitoring for the final days of taper as well as daily athlete monitoring including hydration and wellness measures.
During the competition my priorities were primarily in monitoring warm-up and recovery protocols. For example, Paralympic swimmers compete in multiple events across the 10-day competition with heats and finals on the same day in morning and evening sessions, so efficient recovery is imperative to maintain performance across the competition period. This support work also formed the basis for one of my research studies looking at the stress response associated with participation in major competition and its implications for recovery and performance.
In an effort to bridge the “science vs practice” gap, we as researchers must be clever with our data collection methods and ensure even some of the research data can be applicable to the current athlete training programme. I say ‘current’, as data collection and analysis over a two year period may be reasonable time for a researcher but for an athlete or coach it’s half an Olympic cycle! I have found that athletes and coaches are far more willing to engage with research when it can address shorter-term objectives.
Attending the Paralympic Games has been a career highlight for me, and also gave me the rare opportunity to collect research data at a major competition in a unique athlete population. I have been lucky to be involved from both the applied and research perspectives and can see the benefits of the research output from both angles. I have recently started a full-time physiology position at the Sport Ireland Institute and will continue to include scientific research into applied athlete support for Tokyo 2020 preparations where possible. I hope my brief summary and learning’s up to now might help anyone looking to conduct research in high performance sport and may close the “science vs practice” gap a fraction more!
Ciara Sinnott-O’Connor is a PhD Researcher in the department of Physical Education & Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick.