Ageing

SSA Blog: The diet of a champion

The Formula 1 season kicks off today in Australia with all eyes on World Champion and pole sitter Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is, without doubt, the sports biggest draw and maybe it’s only true crossover star. He goes into the season chasing a 5th world title, which if he achieves it would move him up to joint second on the all time list.

Midway through last season, a different spotlight was shone on Hamilton after he announced his decision to follow a vegan diet. Many questioned the wisdom of this lifestyle change at such a time, but any criticism was soon overshadowed by his imperious form following the mid-season break, which saw him storm to the driver’s crown with two races remaining.

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Hamilton is by no means the first major sports star to promote the virtues of a vegan diet. Perhaps the most famous advocate of a vegan, or predominantly vegan diet, is NFL star, Tom Brady. Brady, at the age of 40 has the most super bowl wins of any current NFL player. His longevity and continued success have created considerable attention around his diet and training practices. Brady’s diet is reportedly vegan throughout the year except during the winter playing period when he introduces limited lean meat to help with protein intake.

But are there performance benefits to such a diet for athletes?  

In a 2010 paper, Drs Fuhrman and Ferreri suggest potential training and recovery benefits linked to a vegan diet. They attributed this to high antioxidant, micronutrient and carbohydrate rich foods that a plant-based diet would provide. A recent review by David Rogerson, based at the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University, also highlighted evidence a vegan diet could promote health in non athletics populations. To substantiate the claim, he points to lower rates of obesity and reduced incidence of heart disease and cancer among vegetarians and vegans. However, the same review outlines that individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets tend to be more health-conscious and therefore other lifestyle factors (e.g. exercise) may confound these effects. Rogerson concludes that currently when examining athletes, there is a lack quality scientific evidence to support any major performance benefit linked to a vegan diet.

There can be no doubt, however, that veganism is becoming more visible. It’s not only Hamilton and Brady that feel they are benefiting from a shift in traditional nutritional strategy, David Haye and Venus Williams have also moved to a plant based diet. Often this is linked to a desire to extend their careers and an increased focus on health. With all of them now past their 30th birthday it provides a new avenue for commercial partnerships beyond sport.

The growing influencer trend across social media has left sport stars with fewer traditional endorsements opportunities in the later stages of their careers. This is due, in part, to their lack of relevance among digital natives who look to people like them for product reviews, lifestyle tips and day to day information about health, diet, exercise and fitness.

However, major dietary changes and health based transitions focused on conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer are the domain of the middle aged. These audiences are looking for role models to support a change in their behaviour rather than, in the case of generation Z, a behaviour to follow in the first place.

This trend opens the door to athletes maintaining a career into their late 30’s and even early 40’s who can create an opportunity for themselves by highlighting their switch to vegan or plant based diets. Moving away from their sporting glories, instead showcasing their story of change, the process of adoption and the shift in behaviour, adapting to a new lifestyle for health and performance reasons.

Now 33, Lewis Hamilton’s status within Formula 1 and across the globe as a sporting icon is secure. The narrative surrounding his two year transition to veganism creates a new, less performance focused story providing the extra ingredient that maintains his relevance to fans and even opens the doors to a new, older and more affluent target audience away from the track. Watch this space for the Lewis Hamilton cookbook and range of vegan ready meals!

 Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink.

  

SSA Blog: Sport Science in 2017

With 2017 drawing to a close we look back at three significant stories that shaped the sport science year and will continue to have an impact into 2018, both inside and outside the performance arena. 


Nike Breaking 2
Without doubt the biggest sport science story this year was Nike’s attempt to break the 2 hour marathon barrier. The 2 hour barrier is one of athletics last great challenges. Indeed, it was postulated as long ago as 1991 that a time of 1.57:58 was possible under perfect conditions. Nike’s project was four years in the making and brought together some of the best minds in sport science as well as an interesting group of 3 athletes who had been drawn from an initial 60 strong cohort. 

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The combination of Nike’s financial backing, scientific excellence and some of the world’s elite performers lead many to believe a sub 2 hour time would be possible.   
As the project developed, it became clear that this would not be a legitimate world record attempt during one of the major marathon events. From a sport science point of view, this didn’t matter. If anything, it makes it more exciting as it allowed the sport science team to think the unthinkable and take the athletes outside the usual constraints of racing in order to seek the limits of human endurance.


Every aspect of performance was examined with an obvious emphasis on the training and preparation of the athletes.  Areas such as VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy were all evaluated at the start of the project to identify who the researchers thought were the athletes with the physiology capable of sustaining the training load and having a realistic chance of hitting the sub 2 hour goal.  


But physiology is only part of what makes an athlete great. Other areas the researchers looked at included the course, environmental temperature, humidity, altitude and obviously, being Nike research, the shoes. The researchers also became increasingly interested in the psychology of their runners. Ultimately the effort didn’t manage to produce a sub 2 hour performance - Eliud Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of achieving the goal. That is less than a second per mile.


When evaluating the effort, the main performance benefit seemed to come from the drafting formation, developed using support runners throughout the record attempt. Nike commissioned wind tunnel research to ensure they positioned support runners in the most effective formation to maximise the drafting effect. This finding may have huge potential for distance running in the future. In cycling, drafting and protecting the GC rider is a long-established principle. Running has always been seen as a more individual sport and while runners will often train together, rarely do they compete in such a strict team formation.


Nike’s Breaking 2 didn’t manage to achieve athletics' last great barrier, but with its drafting and team formation research, it has provided a model for how it might be achieved both in a scientific experiment and ultimately in a major city marathon.         

The Rise of the Aging Athlete
As human beings live longer, and medicine and sport science continue to develop, it should be no surprise that athletes have been able to take advantage and extend their careers. Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Serena Williams have all dazzled fans, media and fellow performers this year despite their relative age, which has left people searching for the secret elixir of these supposed super agers.

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As with much in sport at the elite level, an athlete’s ability to maintain performance into their 4th decade is a mix of genetic and lifestyle factors. Generally, the key anabolic hormones associated with muscle growth and maintenance begin to decline in the mid to late 30’s. This can have a particularly profound effect on an athlete’s ability to produce power which inevitably has an effect on performance elements such as sprinting, acceleration, striking force and change of direction speed.


New developments regarding training, diet, injury prevention and recovery strategies have allowed more athletes to maintain their careers into their early to mid 30’s. However, the ability to perform at the highest level needs to be supported by a strong motivational drive to train and also the emotional intelligence to accept limitations and plan in order to peak for specific periods during the year. 


Sport science will continue to elongate athlete’s careers. Better understanding of the genetics, training responses, diet and recovery will combine to support the physiological demands. But the greatest elements in the near future will be development of psychological and intellectual understanding to further help athletes develop the mental skills needed to cope with managing the latter stages of sporting careers.


This generation of athlete, with the support of developing sport science, has proved that age is no longer the barrier it once was. This has altered perceptions as to the impact older athletes can have. It will pave the way to extending athlete contracts and the age profile within which elite sport operates.
       
Welfare and Winning
Athlete welfare hit the back pages this year following a number of allegations made by athletes within the Olympic sport system. The cyclist Jess Varnish lead the wave of criticism directed at National Governing bodies funded by UK Sport and subscribing to the so called ‘no compromise’ strategy focused on Olympic and Paralympic success. 


The treatment and culture within which athletes were expected to perform began to come into question. Had the ‘no compromise’ system that has seen unprecedented Olympic success over the past decade been at the expense of athlete welfare? Or is an elite performance environment just that and not everyone can handle the demands they are faced with?


Athletes and coaches were asked for their opinions and experiences with many defending the systems that had helped them achieve their sporting goals. But the allegations kept coming.  


National governing bodies have employed performance lifestyle experts for a number of years in order to support the wider lifestyle aspects of athletes. The goal was to support athletes in developing world class performance habits while they are away from the track, pool or velodrome. However, for some, when the sport becomes all encompassing it can easily become too much, pressure builds, motivation dips and performance inevitably suffers. 


Across sport, coaches and athletes will have different approaches, views, interests and motivational strategies. This is no different from any workplace. In the major professional sports, players have the ability to move and perhaps find a team that ‘fits’ their outlook and personality. Within the Olympic system in the UK, each sport generally only allows athletes one major training environment within which they have to adhere to the culture and expectations that are often entrenched. 


Performance systems are key to producing success. The continuity that exists across the British system has turned Team GB into a global sporting powerhouse (compare this with the relative reactionary approach seen within football). However, these systems need to continually evolve and develop in order to support athletes from a broader talent pool, often that broader talent pool is a consequence of their own previous success. 


Elite sport is tough. Many with the physical talent, simply don’t have the psychological resilience, drive or desire to sustain the training load and lifestyle sacrifices needed. Pushing athletes mentally as well as physically is part of the selection process. It allows coaches and performance managers to assess how athletes perform under pressure and ultimately evaluate if they are developing the required skills to win on the biggest stage. This will mean athletes taken out of their comfort zone, it will mean pressure to perform in training and it will mean being able to meet high standards across everything they do, with consequences if these challenges cannot be successfully met. 


The challenge of sport science is to recognise the individuality of athletes and create systems that can dial up or down the support and challenges that athletes need in order to progress their careers, be that within the sport or leaving it to focus on other challenges.


As we look forward to an Olympic year in 2018 the trajectory for sport science is only upward. The increase in financial rewards across professional sport, the global attention an Olympic Games brings and the continuous health challenges we face, all look to sport science for support. The development in technology, the increased interest in psychology and advances in genetic medicine will provide new avenues for sport Science to explore in the coming years. Who knows what 2018 will bring, but you can be sure sport science will be at the forefront.      
 

How does he still do it?

On Saturday I was called by a researcher from BBC Radio 5 Live. He was interested in how Roger Federer is still able to perform at the top of tennis despite his age.

Since that conversation, Federer has become the second oldest Grand Slam winner in the open era (Ken Rosewall won titles at 35, 36 and 37). However, since 2000, only Sampras (31), Agassi (32), and Federer himself have won grand slams while being on the plus side of 30.

At 35, Federer’s latest win at the Australian Open is exceptional.

So how is he still able to compete in such a competitive professional sport?

The ageing process begins to induce a decline in male physical ability around the early 30’s. Borgest and a team of researchers in Australia highlighted the naturally occurring declines in metabolic, cardiovascular and hormonal systems as the precursors for performance decrements in their review study of 2015. These genetic factors cannot be escaped. And while, in well trained populations, the performance effects often do not become significant until their early 40’s, In the tiny margins of elite sport any decline can become evident very quickly.

What makes Federer’s achievement even more impressive is the nature of tennis as a sport. Whilst endurance capacity has been shown to stand up well via training in athletes in their 30’s, the ability to produce power due to the speed of muscle contraction can begin to significantly decrease in your 30’s (Kostka 2005). As tennis moves towards the power end of the sporting spectrum (we have previously talked about its shift), any drop in this key component would surely impact performance.

There is also a psychological element to ageing. For many, accepting you are no longer capable of the same levels of athleticism is difficult. Others are able to adjust their performances to rely on greater experience and knowledge of the various facets of the game. In this case adjustments, rather than relying on experience or knowledge, are probably the key. I would argue experience and knowledge can have an impact in team sport or against lesser players, but in the upper reaches of tennis, against players with similar levels of mastery, it is difficult to argue that Federer’s ‘experience’ would somehow plug a physical performance gap.

A more plausible explanation is that at 35, Federer is just below the cusp at which focused training, nutrition and other adjustments are no longer sufficient to maintain and manage the inevitable age-related declines. This would fit with Borgest et al (2015) who said “performance has been shown to be maintained until approximately the age of 35 years after which it declines slowly”.

Remember Federer’s well-publicised change of racket size in 2014? The new racket gave him a bigger sweet spot, allowing more room for error. Equipment changes are often a response to physical changes. Was this the first sign that his movement was slowing (which could have been linked to the power insight we spoke of earlier). Did other changes occur in his training and lifestyle to maintain his place inside the world elite? 

In the 5 years prior to 2016, Federer had played an average of 76 matches across 19 tournaments. Due to injury and the need to recover properly, he played only 28 matches across 7 tournaments in 2016. The decision to recover and take the time to develop a fitness programme that could address the specific needs of an ageing body have to be key factors in his victory - that and the early departure of Andy Murray who he was due to play in the quarter-finals.

Federer is clearly exceptional. His Grand Slam win at the age of 35 helps cement his legendary status within the game. To maintain his performance levels takes dedication to a lifestyle many of us couldn’t cope with. To recognise the need to adapt his training and preparation displays a psychological maturity, often missing in others.

Add to this the luck of excellent genetics and you have a 35-year-old Grand Slam Champion.

Roger Federer………..The Greatest of all Time.