The physiology department was just one of the EIS teams that proved its adaptability in preparing Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes for the Games.
This summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo are set to be the hottest in the event’s history.
The anticipated temperatures are expected to be as much as 35°C (95°F) with humidity somewhere between 60 and 80 percent.
The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which have been postponed until this summer, had been on the English Institute of Sport’s radar since the Japanese capital was awarded the hosting rights in 2013.
“We began to think about it from a strategic and leadership level before the Rio Games in 2016,” says Laura Needham, the Co-Head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport [EIS] and Senior Physiologist with British Triathlon. “We began to think about our focuses and themes for the Tokyo cycle so that we knew the challenges we’d face with the climate.”
Once Rio had passed, the EIS’ physiology department could begin to liaise with the practitioners working across each of the 40 sports for which it has oversight. “At that point, we started to think about the event demands for Tokyo,” she adds.
The Leaders Performance Institute sat down with Needham on Microsoft Teams to discuss the EIS’ processes from the announcement of Tokyo as the host city through to the final preparations for the Games.
The tipping point
At the outset of our conversation, Needham explains heat can be beneficial to performance in some events. “You would have seen that with the heated garments that some sports use in the sprint events competitions,” she says. “The tipping point comes in endurance sports where thermo-regulation, the body’s ability to deal with the heat generated during exercise, becomes more difficult as the race goes on.” It was with the climate in mind that the course for the Olympic marathon events this summer was moved to the city of Sapporo, which is 517 miles (832 km) north of Tokyo.
Venue location can also be a concern for indoor sports. “If you add thousands of spectators then the venue’s air conditioning unit must be able to function with all those additional people.” Of course, Tokyo’s are state-of-the-art and ready to host elite sport but it remains to be seen how many people can attend events, with overseas spectators banned from attending the Games.
There are behavioural concerns too. “If you go out and get sunburnt or if you’re dehydrated, that can affect your performance. If you’re sunburnt, you’ve damaged your skin; it’s like an infection; energy is diverted to rebuilding your skin. It’s all these things you have to think about that you have to instil in athletes, coaches and support staff to ensure everyone can perform optimally in their roles at the Games.” Needham explains that those conversations begin with support teams and coaches before she or her colleagues deliver any programmes to athletes. “As you work across the now five-year cycle, athlete engagement probably goes up because, in the initial planning phases, we’re almost behind the scenes asking ‘what do we need to do?’ Speaking to the professors and experts and asking ‘how does this work in reality?’
“You’ll establish what strategy might work with the event demands and the competition schedule of your event and then you’ll start to introduce the strategy to the athletes. These strategies are refined as you move closer to the Games because they’ve been practised; the confidence level goes up across the cycle because you can be increasingly specific about what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to achieve that. The way that you do that is to monitor and measure how the athletes have responded throughout the cycle to certain interventions. We practise what we do, we see how they respond.
“If you start at the Olympics and Paralympics and work backwards, you might have a test event a year out, for example, which you can go to and practise your strategies. The 2019 World Athletics Championships were in Doha, Qatar, and while it’s not the same environment as Tokyo, it was hot so athletes can practise their strategies leading into that.”
Acclimatisation and acclimation
The Leaders Performance Institute asks Needham to discuss the progress the EIS physiology team made during the five-year Tokyo cycle. She explains that the use of core temperature pills has been transformative. “You can swallow these pills and it works its way through your system, connects with a Bluetooth device, and stores information about your core temperature,” she says. “An athlete can compete and then I can download the data and it will tell me how hot they got and at what points. I work in triathlon, so I want to know if the athlete’s temperature rose during the swim, cycling or running segment. We can be much more specific in our heat preparation work, which has helped us to evolve our practice to be much more precise.”
Heat preparation work tends to involve acclimatisation and acclimation. “Acclimatisation is where you go and seek natural heat exposure,” says Needham. “For example, in the winter months, we seek sun and warm weather training camps. Acclimation is where you prepare in a lab environment. We’ve got big chambers at the English Institute of Sport where you can control the heat, humidity and altitude.”
The postponement of the Games is just one of the major impacts of the pandemic, as Needham explains. “If you could design an environment for Covid to thrive you would pop it in a heat chamber,” she says. “Heat chambers don’t ventilate because we want to control the environment; we’ve got athletes exercising so they are aerosol generating. We’ve had massive challenges with that, but we have put in policies and practices in place to ensure we can still deliver our heat strategies for Tokyo and keep everybody safe.”
There is also growing research that demonstrates the efficacy of ‘passive’ measures. “Just immersing yourself in hot water, for example. We’ve actually seen that athletes will have adaptations because that increases your skin temperature, your core temperature, and promotes the physiological adaptations that we want; we’ve got saunas as well. There’s a real pick and mix approach that you can use depending on how you can fit that into your training and competition schedule as each individual athlete or sport.”
Athlete monitoring is a crucial component. “The biggest thing we have to worry about is exercise heat illness,” says Needham. “That’s when you see athletes collapse from their bodies overheating. That’s always on our agenda. We have to get them hot because those are the adaptations we’re after but there’s a sweet spot and you don’t want to take them above that critical core temperature; and that’s where physiologists are called upon in terms of monitoring how they’re responding.
“Take the hot baths,” Needham continues, “the heat acclimatisation or the heat acclimation. You’ve done something with the athlete or you’ve measured it; has the intervention achieved what you wanted it to do? If not, why not? Then you modify that intervention and you go again. There’s this constant critical evaluation going on because, realistically, you want to do as little as possible for the maximum benefit. It’s trying to find that perfect intervention.”
Adapting during a pandemic
The climate adaptation work is driven by the 23-person team at the EIS physiology department. “Some of those people will be directly working with sports,” says Needham. “We have technicians who run our labs so that we can use our heat chambers. Then we’ve got some leaders that oversee the department. It’s a variety of roles that cover a range of sports from boxing, which is indoor, so heat isn’t so much of a problem, to something like marathon running where it will have a big impact.
“Our physiologists will work within the athletes’ performance support teams, with their coaches, with the nutritionists because the athletes will be sweating a lot and you need to keep on top of hydration. They’ll burn more energy so you have to make sure they’re fuelled. Everyone will input into the performance problem and you’ll work with the athlete as well.” Given that EIS physiologists are working across 40 sports there is an opportunity to share good practice and experiences of what has gone well and what has not. “Then they’ll go back into their sport, design interventions, and come back and reflect, debrief. It’s not just physiology as well, it’s the whole performance support team. It’s the power of the network, that you’re all performing as one and helping each other.”
Another common consideration for all sports is the 12-hour flight and the nine-hour time difference between the UK and Japan. Needham says: “When we’re heading east, our bodies can’t cope with that as well. There’s a delay as well in terms of getting our body acclimatised to the time zone. Then the difficulty we have of the Olympics – and not so much the Paralympics because of where they’re placed in the calendar – is that we’re just coming out of Tokyo rainy season so it’s kind of that transition period where you can have a beautifully hot day or you can have it just rain.”
The Rio Games of 2016 caused a similar problem. “Some of the endurance sports did do some heat work in preparation for that because it could have been hot. Paris in 2024 is a bit like that too. There was a heatwave last year that reached 42°C during the Tour de France.
“The important thing is to think about how you can deliver your strategies at home, arrive with a plan B if it’s not hot and humid, and still then be able to perform in the heat if it’s hot on race day. That’s where things like that passive measures are useful because that’s much easier to deliver in the field – in your hotel room or at your holding camp, if there’s a bath. This is where the test events and assessing what do you have available wherever your holding camp might be is important. Then you add on the layer of how Covid-secure that is as well. For example, there might be a Jacuzzi in the gym at the hotel where your holding camp is, but is that going to be open because of Covid and is it safe or does it increase the risk? There’s a lot of that kind of planning going on at the moment but it’s on our radar.
The Games are still several months away but have there been lessons for Needham and the EIS? “You can throw anything at us!” she says. “If we’ve learnt anything from the pandemic, it’s our flexibility and our adaptability. We couldn’t go anywhere during the lockdowns and our athletes still trained. We had swimmers not swimming but the International Swimming League went ahead before Christmas and some are setting personal bests. There’s huge learnings around different modalities of training and also consistently being able to train as well because the year hasn’t been littered with competition.
“We’ve found a way. Adaptability. That would be my main thing.”
This article was originally published by Leaders in Sport.