Both Sides of the Fence: An Insider’s view of Sports Science

In this instalment of the series of posts on sports science perspectives I sit down with Phil Hurst, of Canterbury Christ Church University, and owner of some impressive personal bests on the track to discuss his opinions from both sides of the fence. Phil is studying attitudes towards supplementation and the placebo effect; recently his first chapter of his PhD thesis was published and is a great read – it can be found by clicking here.


Can you give us a brief intro Phil, about who you are, what you’re up to at the moment?

I’m at Canterbury Christchurch University, studying my PhD in sports psychology looking at educating athletes in sports supplements using a new anti-doping education method, demonstrating how our beliefs and expectations about sports supplements can really influence their effectiveness. I’ve come from a sporting background, was a runner, still trying to be and still trying to live the dream athletically!

Nice!  Hopefully going to get into your research later on in this chat, it’s a pretty niche area. So much so that you have to be almost secretive about what you tell us, because it could potentially affect the effectiveness of what you’re studying and affect your results. So we’ll start with a broad question: what does sports science mean to you?

Interesting. I kind of have this debate all the time with sports science, as to whether we actually need it. Sometimes it can hamper performance in that you rely upon all of these measures – you rely on heart rate monitors, you rely on your cortisol levels or whatever you’re measuring. What zone are you in today, and all of that stuff. It moves away from what we did in the 70’s and 80’s of just running how we feel, but it does have it’s place and it’s hugely important in rehabilitation, getting people back from injury and trying to improve performance to maximal abilities. So strength and conditioning, getting the right work in the gym, making sure that you’re running at your best at the right times, so peaking. From a sports psychology perspective as well, you want to be mentally ‘there’.

So there’s two sides of the coin, you want to get out of sports science what you can, but you don’t want to rely on it too much that you start forgetting about how you feel as an athlete yourself – maybe having a good balance between the two.

I think that’s interesting. If we take environmental physiology for example, there’s a balance to be struck between mechanistic research and applied research and I guess what you’re saying is sports science should always serve the athlete, at that applied end of the spectrum?

Yeah, definitely. I always look up to someone like a Barry Fudge (head of endurance at UK Athletics). What’s the purpose of your research for the athlete? If you can’t get something out of your research for the athlete, what’s the point of doing it? And, I think that’s the kind of question I’d ask. What’s the benefit? Who’s it going to benefit and we’d maybe put that under ‘What’s the impact of it?’ coming from an academic perspective.

On that note then, in terms of benefitting athletes or benefitting yourself as an athlete – when do you feel sports science has been, or can be most useful?

Good question. I think it’s largely what I’ve mentioned already. You can monitor your fitness quite well, so I’ve done VO2max testing, lactate thresholds and they’re provide the reassurance that everything is going to plan and maybe when it doesn’t go to plan you can re-evaluate and think why are my numbers not showing what they’ve previously shown, or what could I do differently, perhaps?

Coming from strength and conditioning, you’re looking at those little weaknesses that can be improved. And that’s what really helps, you have all those idiosyncrasies, that you probably just want to tweak or improve to get the best out of you.

Have you got any instances of that you’d like to share at all?

Off the top of my head, I’d pick up on the position that this is the disadvantage of being on both ends of the spectrum. Coming from the academic end and being an athlete, I’m always aware of what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I’m probably subconsciously always soaking things up, and when I do do something I’m just doing it, not always thinking of a reason why I’m doing it.

Picking up on something you mentioned earlier, do you think that athletes can see sports science as a deterrant? Or a distraction? Can it ever be too intrusive?

It can complicate things a little bit too much. I can’t stand Garmins, I can’t stand GPS. I can’t stand that you’re looking at some other object to tell you how you’re running, just get out the bloody door and go and do it! So as a deterrant, I feel it makes athletes ignorant to what they’re doing and how they do it, whereas it should be all about how you and your body is feeling. It’s very intrinsic, whereas sports science is very extrinsic. If you remove sports science, you can have a holistic view of how you’re feeling, you’re evaluating, you’re reflecting constantly upon it, rather than looking at a watch and thinking ‘Oh shit, I’m running 5:30 miling today, that’s far too fast I shouldn’t be doing that’ rather than thinking ‘Do you know, I’m running a 5:30mile, this is really good.’ I’ve done it before around routes where I had checkpoints, and I’d hit a mile in say 4:40 and think ‘Oh my God!’ and the next mile, and the next mile after that were so bad because I was thinking I’m going too fast and if I thought just run how you feel, don’t look at the watch until the end, I may have thought I’m running well here, let’s crack on. So I think there’s two sides to the coin, and the deterrant that I always draw upon.

Going back to testing that we mentioned earlier, do you think we can rely too heavily upon the numbers we obtain from testing? Even some of the concepts we test are false concepts? VO2max how important is that, or should we just get out and run how we feel?

I think it has it’s place, it’s a good indicator of how training’s going, as I say but I wouldn’t like to adapt my training to the test. There’s a huge difference between running on a treadmill with a mask on your face, with scientists surrounding you in a horrible hot room than going out in the countryside and smashing out some reps or whatever. There’s a huge difference, and some athletes might actually take it as gospel when they get their results: ‘I’ve got this VO2max, this is my lactate threshold.’ It’s an indicator, not this is good, this is bad, perhaps we need to tweak one or two things – so I can see there’s a benefit, but people can become dependent on their zones or values.

Some interesting and valid points there. I’d tend to agree with you, despite owning a Garmin – I think it’s just easier than keeping a training diary, because I’m lazy like that! I think you’ve answered this next question inadvertently, but what do you most value in sports science at the moment?

The indicator, or measure of how things are going. How are you doing? Are you running to the best of your ability right now? I think that’s what sports science can do for athletes and trying to get those little tweaks and smooth out the cracks. I don’t think sports science can make someone go from a recreational runner with a 25minute park run time, sports science isn’t going to get you to a 20minute time. That’ll come from the simplistic things and thinking am I doing this right, whereas sports science might give you 10 or 20seconds.

Extending that then, what do you think is the most valuable characteristic in a sports scientist?

This comes back to my research; the most valuable thing in a sports scientist is that they can make athletes better just by observing them. We mentioned the placebo effect, and the placebo effect has got a horrible name because everyone goes ‘Oh, it’s just a placebo.’ but what sports scientists have is a huge persona around them and if you’re a sports scientist, you’re then thinking this person’s looking at my performance, my numbers and telling me what to do and that in and of itself can have a huge boost to performance. So to answer the question, it’s the idea of someone being there to reassure you that you’re on the right track and that you’re going to do well – encouraging the performance and being a presence.

This is why coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, whoever it is looking after an athlete can have such an influence on someone’s performance just by being there. So from a sports science perspective, just doing a test is probably going to benefit your performance naturally just through thinking you’re going to be better after it. I think this is constantly missed out in sports science, we always objectify and look to the numbers, we don’t think about the other perspective of how we actually influence athletes just by being there. Maybe that’s a little off topic…

I think it’s interesting. It’s really important as it’s part of your practice isn’t it? How you present yourself and how you interact and communicate with athletes?

Exactly, and if I was going to take this to the medical world where a doctor is looking over a patient, we’ve found that if  you’re injected with morphine it has half the effect if you’re given that by a machine than if you were given that by a doctor. So, it’s crazy how much or an effect or influence we can have just by being there.

Note – the recording for the usual final two questions was lost due to a poor connection.

Great stuff – thanks for that Phil. Some really interesting insights into some of the softer skills that can really have an impact.

If you want to hear more from Phil, his research and his running exploits give him a follow on Twitter at @Phil_Hurst1





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