Team GB's preparations for this summer's Olympic and Paralympic Games involve strict training schedules, controlled diets and regular physiotherapy. Increasingly though athletes are also relying on cutting-edge research to help them find that extra split second or millimetre advantage, which can mean the difference between gold and silver medals in competitive sports. It is sometimes easy to forget when we watch an athlete or team compete just how much preparation has gone into that performance. But today's athletes are making use of ground breaking research by UK universities to aid everything from nutrition, health, equipment, rehabilitation and performance.
Universities Week this year is celebrating the role of UK universities in hosting the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. This includes the contribution that they are making to improving Team GB's chances of success this summer, which has culminated in yesterday's report Supporting a UK success story: The impact of university research and sport development.
The report takes an in-depth look at how science and research in the areas of technology, health and wellbeing, design, sport development and participation and the past and present and future of the Games, have contributed to London 2012, and more widely to the UK sports industry.
It is not surprising that athletes today use innovative design and complex technologies to aid performance. Some use of technologies can be controversial, but more often than not they are helping athletes break new records of physical endurance, skill and speed. For example, advances in prosthetic technology have raised questions about whether or not it can give an unfair advantage. To address this, researchers at Bournemouth University are investigating the use of prosthetics in competitive sprinting at events such as the Paralympics. The project aims to develop a better understanding of how this type of technology performs and how its impact can be measured. It is hoped that this research could help develop a better idea of what is a 'fair' use of prosthetic technology within disability sprinting.
As the quest to go faster, further and longer continues, researchers are developing new and more complex technologies as well as applying traditional engineering techniques to sport. Some research is helping athletes perfect their training and therefore improve overall performance in rather novel ways.
For example, researchers at Birmingham City University have developed a 'vibrating suit', which may help athletes dramatically improve their memory of physical technique. Once programmed, the smart suit will model human behaviour for a range of activities - such as sporting or movement techniques that demand accurate repetition of action - and give immediate visual, audio and tactile feedback to a user if their movement is inaccurate. This feedback is delivered via vibrating contacts placed across the body at strategic points. The suit has many potential applications where a person needs to perfect a physical technique, including sports such as golf or rowing. Lead researcher Professor Gregory Sporton said on average it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated training (the equivalent of 10 years) for an athlete to become elite standard. The 'vibrating suit' has the real potential of reducing this time and indentifying inefficiencies or postural issues, with potential applications in areas as diverse as fast-tracking promising athletes, or improving lifting or sitting.
An important aspect of London 2012 is the legacy it will leave behind. The research taking place in our universities today will help Team GB achieve success this summer, but its impact will continue to be felt long after the closing ceremony.