Swimming, Science and Supplementation

This post briefly reflects on my time working with Middlesbrough Amateur Swimming Club, what we did and what we achieved. I was introduced to the club through now great friend, and rather accomplished athlete, Aimee Willmott (check out her website and accomplishments). Working with her and her coach, Lisa Bates, both now down at the London Aquatic Centre, formed a cornerstone of my BASES accreditation and was a great insight and path into a sport that, in my opinion, is really receptive to and a great model for sports science. Subsequently I worked with Tom Harforth, who took over from Lisa, and working closely with Tom tried to understand the nuances of the sport more, what limits performance and areas in which we could be most effective. Whilst still focusing on nutrition, we would discuss physiology, training philosophy and biomechanics too.

My practice here was unusual, or atypical, in that we looked at supplementation practices before spending any real time on athletes’ diets individually. The rationale being if we see some good performance effects as a result of supplementation (through testing small groups of athletes, calculating effect sizes and asking what does this mean in the pool?) we get swimmers on board and the athletes may be more receptive to making longer term dietary changes.

Over a 3 year period we refined a bicarbonate and beta-alanine co-supplementation protocol (based on this and this paper), trialled beetroot juice, and assessed the effects of L-citrulline on exhaustive swim performance (manuscript in preparation). These protocols were ultimately quite effective, with athletes buying into the process, producing some good PB’s and in a couple of instances gaining international selection.


Below is a brief interview with Tom, the move to NZ has made these a little harder to conduct but I’m hoping to pick Aimee’s and Lisa’s brains for another post at a later date:

What does Sports Science mean to you?
TH: I feel Sports Science is becoming increasingly important in the field of swimming and it’s an area which has definitely benefitted my swimmers, with regards to their individual performance at peak competitions throughout the calendar year.
When has it been most useful?
TH: Around main events/competitions and Taper Period (predominantly broken swims).
Has it ever been a deterrent? Intrusive?
TH: Not in my experience. The work involving sport science has always been productive regardless of outcomes. The athletes are able to engage and utilise various approaches to achieve a desired outcome.
What do you most value in sports science?
TH: Sports psychology. I believe the mental state of an athlete is the most dominant state come race day and shapes a swimmer’s performance.
What do you most value in a sports scientist?
TH: Knowledge and expertise within the field is important, but the most valuable aspect I feel is the rapport and trust that is built with the athlete(s) by a sports scientist
Which area of sports science most interests you?
TH: Sports Psychology and Sports Physiology.
How can sports science better serve you?
TH: Sports Nutrition needs to be made more accessible to more athletes.
Where next for sports science and swimming?
TH: It’s very difficult to say as sport science is always developing within swimming. It’s important that as sports scientists, swimming coaches and athletes we all stay ahead of the curve, and try to develop new strategies to ensure our athletes swim faster
What are your future plans swimming wise?
TH: My future plans are to try and develop my swimming programme on a bigger scale, and ensure my athletes all have the necessary tools to maximising their potential. The support network of sports scientists is paramount for this to occur.
Until next time…


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