Sports Science: A coach’s perspective

In the first of a series of interviews with athletes, coaches and practitioners I sit down with Ben Barwick (@bennyFP). Ben is a coach with Full Potential, a UK based running coaching company, and works with many athletes across the globe – perhaps most notably at the moment he is coach in residence with Men’s Running Magazine. Ben has a keen interest in hot sports science topics and I think this really shines through within our chat. I hope you enjoy reading and/or listening.


Audio file is available for download by clicking the link

Russ: What does sports science mean to you as a coach?

Ben: I think to me it’s using facts or data that you can quantify in a laboratory setting and start to apply them to a training environment.

There are two things: The sports scientist can be there to back up any anecdotal service the athlete may have had, for example one is saying menthol makes me feel better on a run and the actual sports science behind that can go and find some hard evidence to prove something along those lines, which I think is really great. The other way is that they can study things like carbohydrate intake and those recommended values and then give them to a coach who is then going to try to get their athlete to do those sort of things.

I think as a runner or any kind of athlete you need to be pushing the envelope a little bit; there is this “if it’s working, don’t change it” philosophy, which is fair enough to a degree but if you are going to be looking to move things around, having something factual to base it on rather than the finger in the air approach is really important and that’s where the sports science can be very, very useful.


Russ: So have you got any examples, then, of when it has been most useful to you as a coach so far or even as an athlete yourself?

Ben: I think that we dine out on it a lot but the work we did with David,(see earlier blogs The Value of Case Studies 1 & 2) was really interesting because it was almost sports science on the move – it was almost that sort of coach’s instinct during the race, of watching it unfold, trying to get stuff done and equally the scientific background in some of the things we were doing and the decisions we were making to make it really useful. In the coaching environment, the knowledge of your lactate threshold and that type of support that you can get is really useful in the coaching environment because you can get hard data to set training plans to and set numbers to when you are going out training. So I definitely think training to heart rate is really important and I think you can achieve a lot with it. You need the correct data; we can obviously go from historical values but it’s much better when you take it from a lab test with blood samples and gas analysis if appropriate.


Russ: Do you think there’s a converse to this? Do you think it could be detrimental or intrusive?

Ben: Definitely. It can be intrusive if you let it be, and I think that would be more down to the athlete not being comfortable with the sports science side of things. I definitely think you can coach by numbers too much, or recommend by numbers and what you get in a lab setting is very different to in the real world. In a lab you’re trying to control all the variables to just change one thing, and that’s how you get your data. Whereas in the real world there’s so much going on that you need to be a little bit more flexible with your approach – just because carbohydrate recommendations are this many grams per hour, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to put that into the system.

You can always coach too much by the numbers, and become too involved in the science and even on the other hand you could be a coach that goes the other way and refuses to look at the science and believe their own instincts. I think the middle ground is where the advantages lie, and what Steve Magness does in his book, how he separates the science from the coaching is really interesting. He tees everything up with that (the science) but then has his own thoughts and recommendations based on what the science is telling him, that’s really useful. Obviously there is an expense element to it – testing isn’t cheap, sports scientists aren’t cheap if you want that kind of support, but it can make a difference to your running once you’re at a certain level – at the beginning you’re looking to run and improve your training rather than getting too bogged down with everything else.


Russ: Heart rate is the classic example and I think you’ve touched upon it really nicely there. To use heart rate as the example, maybe there are certain parts of sports science we should rely upon in training, and maybe even consider different ones when it comes to racing?

Ben: Racing and training are almost two separate beasts. Looking at heart rate, if you were in a 10k or a half-marathon, I would say you can ignore the heart rate on the watch and run to the effort level/ how you’re feeling because the whole emotion of the day can start to affect it. When you get up to a marathon or an ultra I’d say that heart rate can be useful at the start to keep you under control, especially if you’ve a tendency to go off to fast, or you’re worried about pacing yourself through an event, especially with ultra-running.

I’ve read about guys who race 50km ultras, who for the first few laps will use heart rate to ‘keep everything down’ and then it becomes a case of getting rid of that and starting to use your athlete’s intuition, which definitely exists. As a beginner you may have less of this, yet as you get more experienced you almost get to a point with heart rate where you know within one or two beats, you’re just looking down to confirm it. I would say you’ve got to treat training and racing slightly differently, and that’s where the mix between science and the athlete has got to come together, rather than just relying on one or another.

I know Team Sky for instance, know the numbers that the guys can push, and they’ll almost robotically go out and do it but perhaps in cycling you’ve a better a number with respect to a power percentage, in running it’s slightly different because you’re affected by different variables.


Russ: What do you feel is most valuable in sports science? Have you applied anything in particular, or what do you feel you can pull out from it the most?

Ben: You need a good sports scientist to get good sports science. One doesn’t happen without the other – the better the sports scientist is in understanding the athlete, and the science behind it, the more value you can gain from it.

Working with yourself for example, you understand running so you get a lot better feel for that type of work, whereas if I was working with someone who’s background was in cycling, trying to apply it to running would be I think a slightly different outcome. Equally if you went to try and look at cycling, you’d probably get or give something slightly different as well. So I’d say the sports science and sports scientist go hand in hand in terms of their value, and what they can offer depends on what you’re looking to get out from it whether that be support or guidance or just some questions that you’re having trouble answering. In terms of what I’ve found useful, again heart rate would be the go-to thing as I’ve seen it work, but looking at nutrition has been really useful for athletes because you can see the difference that it makes and makes to them.


Russ: With respect to your main areas of interest, tell me a bit more about those if you don’t mind

 Ben: Anything that looks interesting is something you want to read more about, even if it’s not something you put into your training. I get you to send me papers now and again, I’ve looked at what’s out there from varying nutritional guidelines to looking at injury rates (that’s a really interesting study), training loads and volumes (systematic reviews on those) and at the moment I’m just reading one about the lactate threshold, what we’ve learnt about and know about that – yeah it really is anything – you never know what’s going to peak your interest until you see it. It’s nice to be reading the latest stuff and get an idea about putting things into your training, or taking this and that and moving it forward. I’d say nutrition is a big one, but the training recommendations that can come from sports science mainly.


Russ: We venture out to Portugal, and are beginning to work with some more unusual athletes, potentially some really unusual athletes, do you think that those areas of interest are quite susceptible to flux depending on what stage you’re at in your training or what athletes you’re looking after?

 Ben: I think there’s always going to be bedrocks that you want to know more about. Recovery, training and nutrition are the three pillars that we work around but there’s little tweaks here and there whether it’s training in the heat, or if someone’s running multi-day ultras looking at the best way to get them through that and what data is out there, who’s done what beforehand. It will definitely flux depending on what’s going on in my life as well!


Russ: How can or how could either sports science as a whole, or sports scientists like myself, serve you better?

Ben: That’s a really interesting one. It’s almost having your own sports scientist that can look into what you’re looking into, or at least they’re able to do that if you need them to. Every coach can’t have a sports scientist working for them as much as they’d like them to, but knowing they’re there and putting the work in, getting these papers together and finding out and discovering new information is brilliant to know in and of itself. Then having the sports scientist with the ability to apply that to an athlete that you’re working with, or to come up with ideas with you is great – but that again depends upon how good the sports scientist is within their particular segment of sports science. Just because you’re a sports scientist doesn’t mean you’ll be good across sports, you almost want that specialisation as a coach as they’ll have a good understanding of the sport you’re coaching in. There are obviously crossovers and we can learn things from other sports, definitely, but when you’re working on a micro level of coach, athlete, sports scientist you really want them to know what’s going on.


Russ: If you have sports scientists going through their BASES Supervised Experience, as part of that we have to declare which area we’re most interested in. Would it be valuable to you as a coach to have access to a list of sports scientists within your sport – would their contact details be of use to you?

Ben: I think so, especially if you’re looking to push that side of your coaching. It’s almost like a directory come LinkedIn profile for sports scientists, but you definitely want similar to a good massage therapist, once you’ve found a good one, you’ll stick with them because you know they understand running.

With a sports scientist, if you’ve got a good one you want to keep hold of them and know that they can help you.


Russ: To wrap up, I imagine these could be really short or really long answers, where do you think sports science needs to go next to better serve you as a coach? Or better serve your interests?

Ben: Hopefully my interests align with those of other people, as it’s quite a selfish question. What’s coming out is great, more of the same, I definitely think in terms of areas there are power meters for running now and that side of things is quite exciting; perhaps, also minimising injury risk – how does that work? Does our running form actually matter in terms of hard numbers in cadence, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, pelvis tilt and all of those little things?

As sports scientists give us some idea of how we are to injury proof athletes because good training is just about consistent work, week upon week, the more injury proof we are the better off we’re going to be.

Otherwise, I think on a macro scale everything that’s going on in sports science is great, but on a micro level it’s how you interact with your sports scientist to get the best out of various situations that you’re working together on.


Russ: Just to finish off Ben, what’s next for you, either as a runner, or as a coach? As I know you’re involved in some really interesting stuff at the moment

Ben: In terms of my own running, just keep fit over summer where I’m looking to do some shorter 5k/ 10k type work, build from there to a half-marathon later in the year and see if we can hit a new PB, which will always be nice.

Coaching wise it’s a bit of everything really, we’ve a lot of athletes and some are doing big multi-day ultras, others are looking to shave time off their marathon or shorter events. Working with our young athlete camp too also brings a different challenge, and the area of working with kids and how best to coach and help them leaves me asking what needs to be put in place?

As always, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for your time – I hope you enjoyed it, and I look forward to chatting with other people in the not too distant future!



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