How to build an athlete

The physical and mental requirements to be the best in the world differ depending on the sport, but all elite competitors will share certain characteristics. Four leading Birmingham academics from the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences share how their research helps build better athletes.

Eat at the right time for your individual goals

Dr Gareth Wallis (BSc Sport and Exercise Sciences, 2000; PhD Sport and Exercise Sciences, 2006) returned to Birmingham to research nutrition.

He says: 'I think the future is in personalisation and the use of technology, integrating physiological monitoring with the nutritional guidance to offer individualised information. We are not there yet, but it's a potential direction for elite athletes.

'We recently examined whether carbohydrates help the body recover from exercise. If you eat fructose (the sugar found in fruit) with glucose-based carbohydrates, studies suggest this can extend how long you can exercise. Athletes should consider ingesting at least 1.2 g carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per hour – for the first few hours of recovery – as a mixture of fructose and glucose-based carbohydrates.

'We have also researched whether you should eat before exercise. There is evidence that exercising without eating breakfast can enhance the skeletal muscle metabolic profile for young, healthy men. However, we need to examine long-term studies to understand whether this is true for everyone. Further long-term studies are required, particularly in people who are at risk of or living with cardio-metabolic disease.'

Use your data to find your edge

Dr Jamie Pringle has provided physiological support to several Olympic medal-winning athletes and record-breaking cyclists.

He says: 'These days, data is just as important as the equipment an athlete might use. For example, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, a performance analyst for GB Boxing put together a matrix of information on opposing boxers – who they had fought, who had won, what punches were effective – and from that you could establish the probability of whether particular tactics will work or not. That kind of information informed Sir Mo Farah's tactics: at his peak, if he was within two metres of the race leader, and Mo ran a 52-second final lap, he would invariably win. No-one could match his sprint finish.

'With access to more information than ever, the smart use of data is where I think you will see further progress in the future. Innovation is fundamentally doing the same things differently to try to make them better, or doing different things to try to find the same answer. With the wealth of data now available, better analysis of that data will be key.'

Create the right motivational environment

Professor Joan Duda has been the sport psychology consultant for numerous national and international athletes and teams. 

She says: 'Our research has shown that more empowering sport environments contribute to quality motivation and positive engagement. Empowering coaches focus on mastery and personal improvement, provide "voice and choice" to their athletes, and are caring and respectful. When coaches are controlling or intimidating and emphasise being better than others rather than doing one's best, they are disempowering. We focus on developing more empowering coaching environments via our Empowering CoachingTM training programmes, which have recently been adopted across 13 different countries.

'Our research also indicates that promoting self-regulation skills in athletes is key. These skills help athletes be more aware of when they are thinking and acting optimally, when they are not and how to return to that optimal state.'

Take care of your general fitness

Dr Liam Anderson is using his years of experience at football clubs across Europe to bridge the gaps between science and performance.

He says: 'COVID-19 caused mass disruption to professional football and meant we needed to research an alternative approach to training. Professional soccer players typically focus on team-based, football-specific training and match play, rather than fitness training.

'During lockdown, we researched the effectiveness of a 13-week remote physical training programme in professional players. Fitness levels were assessed before and after undertaking the remote training programme. The results they sent us suggest that alternative modes of training such as fitness training can be used where team-based training and match play is not available, without negatively impacting physical development.'

The University of Birmingham has an outstanding reputation among elite athletes as a place to combine their studies with their developing sporting careers. Many receive financial aid through sports scholarships, thanks to generous donations from alumni and supporters.