Human Performance, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Sep 15, 2021
We shine a light on three areas where the EIS has better supported sports and athletes to train, recover and perform.

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By John Portch

When the UK entered its first national lockdown in March 2020, the nation’s athletes were reduced to training alone in garages, gardens or perhaps even their local park.

Naturally, some had more equipment or suitable spaces than others but, in the case of Great Britain’s top athletes, the English Institute of Sport [EIS] worked with individual National Governing Bodies to ensure that athletes could maintain a level of fitness.

“Inevitably, a lot of sports have had to train differently,” says Kevin Currell, the Director of Science & Technical Development at the EIS. “A lot of sports couldn’t do what they always did. For example, they couldn’t attend an alpine training camp. They had to train differently and you’ve certainly seen that some sports have learned from that. In fact, maybe they didn’t have to do what they’d always done for the last 20 years. They’ve had to find different and creative ways, such as more land-based training for swimmers. They will learn from that creativity.”

Here, we shine a light on three areas where the EIS has better supported sports and athletes to train, recover and perform.

1. Home training at Boccia UK

The nature of Covid 19 has meant that the coronavirus has been of particular risk to Paralympians, some of whom were required to shield until they received at least a first dose of a vaccine. “It’s been a lot more difficult to create appropriate environments for those athletes to come back to training,” says Currell. He explains that Britain’s boccia athletes have some of the highest support needs and some of the last to return to a training environment.

“The boccia programme is comprised of 11 world class athletes who are amongst those with the highest support needs in the Paralympic system,” says Boccia UK’s Head of Performance Support, Chris Wagg. “From a Covid perspective, they were among those with the greatest risk of some severe complications. Our approach was really framed around protecting their health and making sure they stayed well.

“We’re a camp-based programme. So they would train locally at home, come into organised camps. They were shielding and just trying to adapt to being in isolation at home and utilising what space they had in their living rooms, kitchens, hallways to keep training, keep well, and keep ticking over because at that point we thought Tokyo was still going ahead; we had to nudge people along to make sure we were still making some progress towards that and then reacting as the pandemic developed.”

Remote coaching became a staple. “Coaches found a number of different ways of remote coaching, someone on FaceTime, Zoom and Google Hangouts,” adds Wagg. “Each group instigated a weekly coaching call so that coaches could catch up with the whole group and each of their coaching groups and support each other. Then the physical team, the strength & conditioning, the coaching side of that discipline; they would produce physical challenge videos to coach people through different exercises or promote some really good practice and use the AER monitoring app [see below] to check the range of movement, strength and power and so on.

“They produced different videos and resources to send out to the athletes to coach them through how they would do their own profile and testing at home, feed it back to them so they could amend programmes as a consequence. We used a variety of different methods.

“One of our athletes, David Smith, who is World, European and Paralympic champion, was training in his kitchen. He has a very powerful, explosive underarm delivery that uses particular types of shots and, from a space perspective, he just didn’t have the space to deliver that shot in the same way and our conditioning team looked particularly at resistant band exercises to help maintain his physical capacity to deliver that shot without actually throwing it into a net or system that can catch the ball in order to maintain the repetitions and the load and that skillset for him in a different context.”

2. The AER App

The EIS’s Athlete Health Strategy, led by the EIS’ Director of Athlete Health, Craig Ranson, has been a crucial component of the Tokyo cycle. He says: “UK Sport and the EIS got together at the back end of the Rio cycle to put together a strategy aimed at optimising that availability for preparation and performance because of the performance impact.”

Prior to 2015, there was little basic information available to quantify the injury and illness burden across world class sport. It was difficult to find the data to inform decisions such as where the EIS should focus its resources in terms of athlete health research, recruitment, development and projects.

There is no doubt the EIS service delivery was having a big impact on athlete health but finding quantifiable data to evidence this was a challenge. “Since then, we have been on a journey to fundamentally redefine the way we capture, process and gain value from athlete health data – creating a sustainable platform and specialist team to maximise the return on this investment for the long-term,” says David Gallimore, the EIS’ Interim Head of Performance Data.

The EIS’ health surveillance system, has had a profound impact. One popular feature has been the AER [availability, effort and recovery] monitoring app. “Athletes directly input daily AER information via their smartphones so that coaches and support staff can dynamically manage performance and health programmes,” says the EIS on its website. “The flexibility of PDMS and the AER App allows the EIS to individually tailor information and questions for each WCP [World Class Programme]”.

Little did anyone know that Athlete Health and the AER App would come into their own in 2020. Gallimore says: “We use the app for daily monitoring and wellness. We built in some specific questions around Covid tests and tracking, where athletes can record every day whether they’re feeling right and, if not, which of the following symptoms are they showing.

“A dashboard that displayed information to doctors and the relevant people in each World Class Programme can help inform who can attend the site on a given day, what symptoms people are showing if any, how that relates to any Covid diagnosis. The key points of information that gets captured are readily available in a simple dashboard form with email and text notifications to the relevant people.”

“Our athletes fill that in on a regular basis,” says Wagg. “It became a useful tool for seeing how people respond; were any of the underlying patterns around health and wellbeing changing; any indications of high stress or not being able to cope so that we could intervene and support them with their mental and physical health; but it also gave us the chance to look at some profiling and monitoring and to understand how they were adapting to training at home. We considered differences to a normal training week; what exercises or conditioning programmes could we complement that with to maintain or change the load and have them adapt to the circumstances.”

Beyond optimising athlete health and availability, Gallimore explains that the focus on athlete health has enabled the creation of a ‘data warehouse’ that turns raw data from the PDMS [the EIS’ Performance Data Management System] into information that produces valuable insights. He says: “The result is that medical practitioners can focus on using the insight, not producing it.”

3. ‘Performance backwards, not nutrition upwards’

As the EIS website states, during a four-year cycle for an Olympic or Paralympic Games, an athlete may compete anywhere between 20 and 100 times, with 2,000 to 4,000 training sessions depending on their sport. They will also eat or drink 8,000 times. It says: “Every single one of those 8000 eating or drinking moments will change the biochemistry of the body, sometimes subtly sometimes dramatically. If an athlete can accumulate the effects of those changes to their biochemistry they can reduce the risk of injury and illness, facilitate the adaptation to training and enhance their performance.”

That is where EIS Head of Performance Nutrition, Mike Naylor, and his colleagues on the Performance Nutrition team come in to support British athletes, set standards and demonstrate performance impacts.

“We don’t often tell athletes what to eat without offering understanding,” says Naylor. “Understanding them as an individual, understanding the environment that they’re in, understanding what they’re trying to achieve with their sports; there’s a number of factors that influence the nutritional practices that we recommend.

“We often call it ‘performance backwards, not nutrition upwards’. We’re working backwards from performance, trying to understand what they’re doing on a day to day basis, as well as their preferences as an individual. What things do we need to think about? Their characteristics, their habits, their nutritional history. We need to understand them and that’s why it’s important to be embedded within the sports and to build the rapport and relationships with the athletes. Then we can make a positive change with rather than coming in and just saying ‘you need to eat this, this and this’. It’s very much built on an individual level to build that support.”

Naylor, however, also explains that surprises can crop up from time to time, particularly when it comes to supplement usage. He says: “You have so many different supplements that pop up on the market all the time as well. A lot of people want to find an edge in these places and sometimes you need to find that way to stick people to an evidence-based approach and doing that in the right way.”

As is customary at the EIS, individualisation is essential. “There’s a number of different environments that the athletes are in. The competition schedules, training programmes can change; different injuries can affect athletes; and so we need to be adaptable when creating effective solutions that are going to support the interdisciplinary team and the athlete.”

That adaptability will be key moving forward. “The world moves fast but sometimes we need to be really careful because the products available and the market moves a lot faster than the science. You can easily get distracted by new products or supplements and so maintaining that evidence-based way of working during these times creates an advantage.

“For instance, in Tokyo, a lot of focus has been put around the heat and humidity and the environment, which determines the nature of the way that we work to support the athletes.

“That’s the way we can continue to work: as an interdisciplinary team. We will identify the problems, challenges and work towards them. Technology is always evolving and we like to be at the forefront of that to make sure that we have an understanding of what’s happening but, at the same time, we need to make sure we’re applying it in an applicable and evidence-based way that is contributing to the performance questions that we’re getting from athletes.”

This feature was taken from our latest Performance Special Report, Staying Agile: Managing Disruption and Optimising Preparation During the Pandemic – detailing the work of the English Institute of Sport with its teams and athletes.

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