Reaching the top in an individual sport requires lots of team effort. Dr Josephine Perry has tips on assembling a good support structure
What do most elite athletes have in common? They train hard, sleep well and pay attention to their diet. But many do all of this with a full team of experts behind them.
When GB athletes head to a major championships they are supported by a team of 350 coaches, biomechanics, performance analysts, performance lifestyle advisors, nutritionists, physiologists, psychologists, physiotherapists, doctors, research and innovation experts and strength and conditioning coaches who work for the English Institute of Sport (EIS) that they can tap into.
“In the four-year cycle to Rio, EIS practitioners delivered more than 950,000 hours of support,” says the EIS national director Nigel Walker.
Working with all these experts regularly would set you back a small fortune, estimated at around £10,000 a year for fortnightly sessions – and that doesn’t include race entries, kit, club fees or travel costs. There are ways you can save costs though. So, if you are not at elite level, and want your own support to build yourself a dream team, where do you start? Here are some key experts it could be worth considering.
Jamie Pringle, a physiologist based in Leicestershire who was formerly head of sports science at British Athletics, says the highest priority for him is helping an athlete understand their body.
“Profiling and screening, be it in training or testing, out on the road or on the treadmill, is a part of that but ultimately it’s an exercise in athlete self-awareness and up-skilling the athlete (and coach) to make better decisions for themselves,” Pringle says.
“Physiologists can measure exercise intensity and the athlete’s response to training sessions, bringing precision and control to the training efforts and make sense of this for the athlete and the coach.”
Where to find one: Check out your local university sports science laboratories where you can often pay for physiological assessments at privately run clinics.
The British Association of Sports and Exercise Sciences has a database of consultants at bases.org.uk
Jamie Pringle is at the Performance Science Distillery (psdistillery.co.uk).
Alexa Briggs, the ultra runner, used a physiotherapist to help her through a serious hip injury.
“My physio helps increase my body awareness, so that I understand the imbalances and traits I have and what I need to do to stop them causing injuries,” she says.
“They have been absolutely key in helping me map out what I can do when injured as well as guidance on sports/activities I should avoid. The specific rehabilitation exercises have been key in ensuring my return to sport.”
Where to find one: Visit the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy’s Physio2U service on their website at csp.org.uk
Briggs also saw a sports psychologist to help her compete in a 24-hour running race and found it benefited her preparation and confidence.
“By helping me to focus on the training I had done and what had gone well my sports psych helped me calmly approach a very challenging race that was well outside of my comfort zone,” she says.
“That meant I could build up to the race and stand on the start line confident in my abilities and ready to face the challenge.
“They were also invaluable in giving me a range of techniques to help deal with negative thoughts before and during the race, as well as preparing strategies for dealing with issues that cropped up.”
Where to find one: There are two main options to find a specialist sports psychologist. You can either use a British Psychological Society Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist who will be a fully-fledged member of their Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology (bps.org.uk) or a BASES Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist (bases.org.uk).
In 2009 psychology became a registered profession under the Health Professions Council and it is illegal to use the title “sport and exercise psychologist” unless you are on the HPC register (hpc-uk.org).
The meal planner
Alan Murchison is a Michelin-starred chef and keen runner who, through performancechef.com, designs nutritional plans for athletes. He says that athletes working with a chef can learn what’s key to optional fuelling and recovery.
“Every meal should have a purpose, like your training, however for any type of food plan to be a success it has to be sustainable,” Murchison says.
“This means the food must taste good, and that’s where a chef can really help.”
However, since most athletes are unable to afford or justify such a service, the next best thing is a recipe box supplying nutritionally balanced ingredients for home cooked meals.
Where to find them: Mindful Chef (mindfulchef.com) is hugely popular with athletes – their most popular is the vegan recipe box containing three plant-based meal kits with gluten-free, organic ingredients.
Unusually, they offer a one-person box, as well as boxes for two. Another option is Soulmatefood (soulmatefood.com) which includes an evening meal and two performance snacks each day.
A growing number of elite athletes have lifestyle advisors. They help to minimise any potentially detrimental concerns, conflicts and distractions that athletes have, help them plan for their post-sporting career, teach them financial skills and help them fit education around their training.
For amateurs this support usually comes from our families. Adult athletes need their family and friends to understand the time commitments and pressure they feel, younger athletes need their family for logistical support such as driving them to training or competitions. And all athletes value the mental support they get when their families and friends stand on the side- lines to cheer.
Where to find one: The next best thing is a professional life coach or NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) practitioner who can help you to plan and order your life so that you maximise the effects of training. Many offer services over the phone or via skype. Consult the lifecoach-directory.org.uk or chimpmanagement.com