(Pocket-lint) - Science in sport is now becoming more important than ever as athletes reach peak performance. But the tech developed for the pros can even help us normal folk to get fitter. We visited the GSK Human Performance Lab, while Olympic medal-winning triathletes the Brownlee brothers were being put through their paces.
We joined in to find out just how science and technology can make the human body even more efficient. Spoiler alert: drinking lots of fluids is massively important.
For all the tips skip to the end. To learn the hows, the whys and more, read on.
What is the Human Performance Lab?
GSK, the company better known for pharmaceuticals, is big into sports data. It built the Human Performance Lab in 2013 as a means to monitor athletes in order to find ways to improve their physical abilities.
The company pointed out to Pocket-lint that it's currently working on software that can crunch enormous amounts of sports data as it predicts everyone will be monitored 24/7 soon. The result will be lots of data but with nobody knowing what to do with it. That's why this lab exists, to test the elite to see how changes in diet, lifestyle and form can affect performance.
For us this translates to a future where a drop in blood sugar, say, results in an alert on a wearable to remind us to eat a certain type of food. Essentially we'll be perfectly fuelled in the future meaning less illness, better sports performances and overall enhanced, longer lives.
Measurements are power
Tracking what the body is doing in exercise, compared to resting, is key in finding out how it performs. The scientists at the Human Performance Lab are a bit like Formula One engineers in that they find what the body uses, lacks and needs.
The Brownlee brothers, along with the rest of British Triathlon, are being measured here to find their peak abilities. Drinks were created for the duo that deliver the exact amount of sodium they each need to perform on race day. You sweat out sodium as you train and losing it means less efficient muscles, essentially.
When asked about consumer tech, Alastair Brownlee says he likes to use Strava as a way of competing when people aren't there to race against. Even he admits there are some hardcore cyclists using the app, especially when you get out into the hills of his home of Yorkshire.
What's the ultimate sports measurement?
At the moment we can measure heart rate, cadence, watt power, speed, distance and the like using publicly available kit. In the near future we'll be measuring ourselves as accurately as this lab measures professionals. That will mean knowing our exact lactate levels while training so we don't over or under train.
Lactate is a bi-product of the fuel produced to feed your muscles. A build up that can't be used by your muscles because they're too exerted is basically what leads to muscle burn after training – lactic acid build up.
Another metric the GSK is working on is cognitive ability, or mind health. It's still in the testing phases but believes a quick test on an iPad could show variations in brain function which, ultimately, can be used as a measure for physical performance. This could be cheaper, more accurate and easier to measure than current metrics.
For example, on our test day Alastair Brownlee had won the London ITU Triathlon the day before so was dehydrated slightly, the result was a slower reaction on one of the tests. Slower than ours we don't mind adding – all those years of gaming paying off at last. The lab found him over two per cent dehydrated, which is too much to train, so he was rehydrated before any training.
We were told a 100 millisecond loss is all that it takes to be over the legal limit for driving, which is the equivalent to staying awake for 24 hours.
Science shifts environments
One of the big issues for professional athletes is changing climates. For this reason the Brownlees are in at the lab acclamation training for the Rio Olympics.
Using a special room in the labs, scientists are able to adjust the temperature and humidity to suit the climate on race day. They can recreate the top of Everest which has just seven per cent oxygen. In this case its 70 per cent humidity at 30 degrees Celsius – a worst case scenario for Rio. They say it takes about a week of training for the body to adapt.
We trained using a special bike that adapts difficulty to keep you at a certain level. At the same time your heart rate, blood, weight, sweat and breathing are measured. The result is a broad range of data - including the Holy Grail, lactate.
The difference in our heart rate, from training at room temperature to Rio conditions, was a hefty 10 per cent jump. By training in those conditions that should, theoretically, drop to normal after a week's worth of acclamation training. This is why athletes often sleep in altitude tents, which simulate the lack of oxygen at altitude and make the body produce more red blood cells. While it only makes a small difference to most of us, you can pick one up for around £5,000. Worth it to be able to sleep in a tent indoors if nothing else, as Jonny Brownlee points out.
So after all this training, science and talks with pro athletes what are the take-away tips?
Hydration is key. Think of your stomach as a sieve so no matter how much water you put in it'll only drain into your body at one speed. For this reason keep hydrating regularly. This is especially important leading up to any sort of race.
Salt isn't bad. Yes too much salt can be bad for you, but for athletes it's key to performance. Sodium is the main thing lost in sweat so keeping that topped up, with sports drinks or even salty food leading up to a race, is key. This should help to stop cramp and fatigue.
Carbohydrate loading the night before is a myth. Your body can only utilise a certain amount of carbohydrates so eating lots the night before a race isn't ideal. This puts pressure on your gut and will make you need the toilet, potentially during the race. Ideally load up on carbs for two days leading up to the race, this will stock it in your body ready to be turned to energy on race day.
Eat early. On the morning of a race be sure to eat two hours before you start. This will give your body enough time to digest the food for energy as well as emptying your stomach ready for race refueling.
Skin temperature and core temperature can be hacked. If your body temperature reaches 40 degrees it's pretty much game over for performance. Since your body cools by sweating and the evaporation of that sweat brings temperature down, emptying water on your skin can help. This lowers your perceived temperature which can actually trick your body into thinking it's cooler, essentially, resulting in more performance.
Of course drinking that water, especially if you're already covered in sweat, is going to more directly cool your core. So, technically, the faster you go on a bike, the cooler you are from increased breeze so the more water can go to muscle work rather than cooling.
Sleep. Deep sleep, as opposed to light or REM sleep, is when muscle tissue rebuilds. Alastair Brownlee says he likes to switch all gadgets off and relax a while before bed so sleep comes easier. The result should be a deeper rest that lets you train harder the next day. Getting a minimum of eight-hours is also key.