Can winners be made in a lab?


There’s only so much an athlete can do on the field. Science is finding ways to make you fitter, stronger and faster – and some of the most innovative research is being carried out in Dublin, writes JOHN HOLDEN

WE ALL KNEW this day would come. Someone on either side of the geek/jock divide finally realised that, if they worked together, they could take over the world (probably a geek’s idea). And they have started their quiet revolution in the DCU School of Health and Human Performance (SHHP).

This school studies the science subjects in a sports context. This differs from traditional physical training programmes in that the SHHP aims to move students beyond the whole body level to a point where they understand how we function at a cellular and even sub-cellular level. This gives them practical skills in the lab and on the pitch.

The school offers three different degree programmes: the BSc in Athletic Therapy and Training; Physical Education with Biology; and Sports Science and Health.

The BSc in Sports Science and Health has been running since 1999 while the other two programmes are pretty new and are more specific in their vocational outcomes.

Even with nearly 450 places across the three programmes, demand is still really high. CAO points are at around the 480 mark.

So who are all these sporty geeks taking up these places? “We definitely get the individual who is passionate about sport,” says head of the school, Catherine Woods. “It has to be the top priority for each applicant. You’ve also got to be very focused on the links between health and sport.

“In addition we get people with very analytical minds – the kinds of people who ask why one person is particularly good at a sport while another, who may train equally as hard if not harder, cannot reach the same potential.”

In order to understand such complex issues, students look at sports psychology and sociology as well as biology, chemistry and physics.

“Sometimes in sport, ability is down to genetics,” says Woods. “But I always remember a teacher who once told me, ‘if you want to be an Olympic athlete, you have to choose your parents carefully’.”

Clearly there are many factors to take into consideration when it comes to the science of winning. Here are just a few of the things they have learned:

Soft landings make you stronger

In the department of biomechanics, studies are being done on the way different sports affect the body. Enda Whyte of that department looks at people’s sprains, fractures and breaks.

“We look at prevention, assessment, emergency care, and also how to strengthen different parts of the body so that they are less likely to be damaged in the future,” he says.

Apart from plinths, weights and golf equipment, his office also contains around 10 high-tech cameras positioned in a circle around a mat on the floor, above digital weighing scales.

“These cameras help us analyse how a person moves,” he says. “We can look at the shape of an athlete’s body, watch how they jump up and, more importantly, how they land.”

This is important because landing in any sport is often the cause of many types of ankle injuries, one of the most common issues Whyte and his team encounter.

“We can look at how a person lands and record the amount of force when they hit the ground,” he says. “The scales under the mat are linked to a computer which can tell how much force you’ve put on your body each time you land.

“The force of one jump may not have any long-term impact on your ankle but we can look at what effect 1,000 landings like this might have over time.”

If damage is potentially being done, they can then assess how to change an athlete’s landing technique and reduce the negative effect.

Your cells tell you if you're overtraining

The SHHP has so many research projects, it wouldn’t be possible to mention them all. But there are a couple of cool areas. The research team are always very interested in the effects of sport on our health.

“We are looking at the cell response to stress at the moment,” says Dr Ronan Murphy of the SHHP Research team. “When we exercise we stress. We also produce micro-particles. Healthy people will have a shorter recovery time to stress than unhealthy people. In addition, unhealthy people will emit a different type of micro particle than their healthy counterparts.”

Sports scientists can then look at those micro particles and assess an athlete’s health. “We can, for example, assess whether or not a GAA player is being overtrained,” says Murphy.

They are also delving into the brave new world of epigenetics. “The best analogy I can use to explain epigenetics is if genetics is a book – written on 200 pages and sandwiched between a front and back cover, the information inside being fixed and unchangeable – epigenetics would be an individual’s response to that book. So it’s genetics modified by the way you live, or how your parent’s lived.”

This area approaches the questions we’ve all asked: why are some racehorses so much faster than others? Are certain people better programmed for long distance running? How come Diego Maradona was able to smoke and drink and take drugs and still be a genius at football?

Sport can change society

The effect sport has on the welfare of communities and society at large cannot be underestimated. Very often sporting groups offer a glimpse, in microcosm, of what may be happening in the wider world of politics, nationalism, gender equality and commercialism.

“This semester we have one student looking at the use of football as a way of connecting with disadvantaged young kids,” says John Kerrane of the SHHP.

Late Night Football is a joint project organised by gardaí, Dublin City Council and the FAI throughout the city.

Football training is held between 9pm and midnight on a Friday and kids are invited to get involved.

“Our student is trying to measure the impact of this social intervention,” says Kerrane. “Equally, other students are looking at the associations that we have with different sports. They are assessing the links between sport and class, for example.”

Inclusive physical education is a part of two of the three degree programmes at the SHHP. Students learn how to include people with disabilities in sport and physical education.

“In the past, kids with disabilities simply weren’t included in the PE class,” says Dr Sarah Meegan.

“Teachers didn’t know what to do with them. We bring in kids with disabilities from St Michael’s House and St Joseph’s School for the Blind and our students deliver individualised PE programmes in swimming, games and aerobics.”

Sensors in your jersey

DCU has also been leading the way in the field of remote web sensor technology and its possibilities in sport.

Professor Niall Moyna is a serious GAA fan but, in his spare time, he gets involved in such projects as the development of “multifunctional remote sensor physiological monitors”.

“Ten years ago, the only physiological indices that could be measured accurately were through heart rate monitors,” he says.

Single sensor technology was in its infancy so at a football match, for example, you might be able to show that each individual player was generating 12-15,000 heart beats in a game and you would have the stats for all 22 players on the pitch.

“All this information looked great on paper but it was difficult to do anything with it,” says Moyna.

With the new technology developed in the nearby DCU Clarity Centre for remote sensor web technology, they have been able to come up with remote clothing-based monitoring systems that can be worn by each player on a team or an individual athlete.

“You can’t even see the sensors,” says Moyna. “They are embedded into the fabric of a jersey.”

An individual’s heart rate, breathing rate and, most interestingly (or disgustingly), sweat rate can all be measured either in real time or just after the event.

“We can now measure external body temperature with sweat sensors so at half time we can tailor hydration to the individual needs of each athlete or player,” says Moyna. The academics are now involved in research with Adidas and Nike. “It’s the future.”

Anyone for remote tennis?

This year’s BT Young Scientist winner mixed his passion for tennis with his computer-programming skills to come up with a suite of programs that use remote sensor technology to analyse data collected from a tennis player’s movements.

The suite of programs can automatically detect up to 13 different tennis strokes.

“Tennis Sensor Data Analysis learns how a person plays so when that person goes back to play again it refers to the model created in a previous session and, based on that model, it can automatically detect different moves,” explains 15-year-old Alexander Amini of Castleknock College. 

“What you could then do is, instead of basing models on yourself, you could base it on a higher level athlete, and see how his/her stroke differs from yours.” According to Amini, the system only needs one sensor that is put on a player’s arm.

“It’s about as big as a cell phone. The sensor is extremely thin but the ones I used for my experiments were made for contact sports like rugby so they have a lot of padding on them.”

The wireless sensors came from DCU’s Clarity centre for remote sensor web technologies where they have been used in all sorts of ways and for analysing performance in all types of sports.

“You can see this technology being made for any sport really or it could be used in medical applications and rehabilitation techniques,” says Alexander.

“You could, for example, monitor the walk of a person who has been in an accident and compare it to a healthy person’s walk.”