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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Top 10 applications: No.1 - Power to the revolution

I am a runner. Well I used to run. Actually I still run, but only a couple of times per week. But I used to try to sprint. I wasn’t very good, but I had a nice time trying! Nevertheless running has been my predominant sport.
This is my way of declaring my lack of bias toward what follows. You should also know that this isn’t written to be flavour of the month, the number 1 was decided many months ago.
Britain has become a nation in love with cycling and a nation of cyclists. Cycle ownership has rocketed as has membership of British Cycling. This has not been a result of heavily discounted bicycles, the development of an extensive cycle network (though this is starting to help), nor the shift in tectonic plates flattening Britain’s gentle hills and making the UK more cycling friendly. It is consequence to the rise in our high performance cycling athletes, their success and their subsequent popularity. We saw similar surges in participation with a Linford inspired uptake of sprinting and a Redgrave inspired generation of oarspeople, but not nearly on the same scale as with cycling. However, the overwhelming success of our track and road cyclists has driven a large wedge into the British popular consciousness. Sir Chris Hoy with 3 gold medals in Beijing was the stand out from the Beijing games, further recognised as BBC sports personality of the year and a knighthood. Team GB’s cycling golds accounted for nearly half of the total Team GB haul, without them Team GB would have come 8th, in the medal table. Such was the dominance that UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) initiated a number of rule changes in an attempt to prevent such a monopoly (you could say they were trying to help spread the love).

Athletes, coaches, directors and support staff in Beijing

Shortly following this was the irrepressible emergence of road performances with Mark Cavendish as a tour de force as the finest road sprinter to have ever lived (similar SPOTY achievement to boot) and now not only a Tour de France winner but 2nd place in Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, respectively.
Fittingly for this Olympic led Top 10 series, we are in such a glut of cycling results that this article will no doubt be out of date in just a few days’ time with the Olympics about to burst open. The point remains that cycling is now a major sport in Britain, and Britain is not only a major force but unquestionably at this moment in time, it is the strongest cycling nation in the World.
The rise of cycling in the UK has been thoroughly articled elsewhere, but in brief you can attach success to the intoxicating combination of extraordinary talent (and for the naysayers that crow that track cycling is not as competitive as track athletics, I am sorry but 2500 W of instantaneous power is butt-kickingly elite), specialist scientific and medical support, world class facilities and diamond strong visionary leadership. Much has been made of the latter and clearly without such an unremittingly torpedo like focus on all things performance, cycling would not have been able to extract such value out of the athletes, at its disposal. Without the sports-specific analysts, therapists, nutritionists, aerodynamicists, physiologists (of course) etc the team would not have been so well supported in their pursuit of excellence. But in my humble opinion, the absence of one cog (literally) would have almost certainly greatly impeded progress.
My conversion (sounds spiritual) into an applied sports physiologist truly began when I began work with the rowing team. Under continual question of “Are you going to make me go faster”. I quickly threw a great many pieces of knowledge off my boat and clung to the life raft of a few nuggets of 'first principles' understanding that could keep me afloat. After the Sydney games and the haze of gold tinted spectacles had worn away (please, please, please do not claim “we did it with X and they won a medal - so it must work”.  Present the thinking and the evidence or be humble enough not to claim it), I made a visit to my one time mentor Peter Keen and the British Cycling physiologist at the time Andrea Wooles (@findingnorth and who is now back oat in Canada). In late November 2000, we met in a converted room at the very back of the Alsager campus of Manchester Metropolitan University. Some way into the pleasantries, that were coloured with statements of ‘humble surrounds’, I asked if they had a lab, “this is it” was the reply about essentially a converted student accommodation kitchen. Somewhat surprised, I couldn’t sense that this was the doorstep to a new world. So I asked if they had any wet chemistry or gas analysis kit, “none” was the response. “This is all the lab we need” and Pete reached up to a shelf and plopped on the table an SRM* (@SRMtraining) crank. The ensuing discussion about the validity of ‘physiological’ measures did more to rock my thoughts than anything before (except temporarily for 2 hours of my 4 year old life whilst watching Star Wars thinking it was a documentary) or since.

SRM (or equivalent) meters and cranks on bikes during on of the most iconic scenes from the last day of the 2012 Tour de France
There are those single issue fanatical scientists that seem to be riveted to one idea, for example, that lactate testing is the be all and end all of performance insights, almost that sampling and reliability should be the blue ribbon Olympic Sport. On a similar note are those that don’t include a performance measure in ‘performance studies’ or on ‘performance athletes, probably because it is the physiology first and foremost that gets the high ranking publications. The SRM crank and ergometer, with its’ 8 embedded force transducers, at least for cycling, gives such a performance test through every pedal revolution. If you have power and torque data on tap then physiology becomes a second priority, because beyond technique, any development that aims to improve performance is judged by the power outputs performed and the resultant movement speed. It was SRM that led this market, it was SRM that British Cycling embraced and at this point I should flag up that other reputable brands are on the market, that I am not sponsored by them* and I would hazard a guess that if SRM hadn't produced power cranks, British Cycling would have found a way to measure in the same way. Sports scientist have used these cranks to do some light engineering  with their outputs of power and torque vs cadence relationships. Ostensibly they have served as the outcome measure for everything and anything in cycling, bilateral symmetries, caffeine ingestion, cooling, carbohydrate ingestion, etc etc,   but in the applied setting the test->intervene->re-test cycle is so elegantly effective and achievable in either the controlled laboratory environment or the controlled velodrome environment that it has become the bedrock of the detailed training, physical preparation and performance based decision making in the sport. It goes without saying that athletes need to put in the hard graft in the first place, and SRM’s don’t make a sport, and more importantly it is redundant without those with skills to delve, analyse, interpret and apply that brings data to life. Peter Keen, Simon Jones (@jonessimon2000), Andrea Wooles, Matt Parker, Scott Gardner (dr_asgardner), Paul Barratt, Dave Bailey, Jonathan Leeder, Esme Taylor (@esmet1985), Len Parker Simpson and Tim Kerrison to name the cast (as well as many others in other sports, private coaching systems and around the world).
When I first drafted this Top 10 list I had altitude and warm-up at the top of the list, but when you step back from what has been the most significant change in the landscape of British sport – cycling has been the most successful development of them all. An inherent part of that development is the humble force transducer that gets the living daylights smashed out of it by those hugely powerful athletes in Manchester, from which so much is trialled and tested. It has allowed the sport to springboard forward with the assurance of solid objective measures to such an extent that who knows if it would have been able to core out such a large space in the public’s affections without such a device.
So I put it to you that the applications of power, torque and cadence data of an SRM crank is the number 1 in my top 10 applications of sports physiology. It serves as the gold standard within cycling and maybe one day we will have an SRM equivalent in running, swimming, kayaking etc, because it is that level of detail with which sports need to be truly objective in their measurement of preparation and performance methods. It has done so in cycling and has played its part in changing the mood, activity and interests of a nation.
PS. As of last year I have a road bike and I absolutely love it, not least because I have lost 6 kg!

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