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by Rebecca Lee - 07.10.08

Following a medal haul which saw Britain’s squad top the medal table of the Beijing Olympic Sailing competition, the shores of Southampton and Weymouth welcomed back the successful GB Sailing squad.

In sailing it is not only the athletes who need to conquer the art and science of their sport but also the team supporting them. The practitioners that work within the RYA sports science team constantly look to maintain and extend the British team’s competitive edge before and during the Olympic Games by keeping on top of the latest scientific tools and techniques. Going into the Beijing Games, a strong support team ensured that the finer details of athlete preparation were backed up by meticulous planning.

The RYA sports science team, led by RYA Senior Sports Scientist Dr Pete Cunningham and supported by the English Institute of Sport (EIS), has embraced some of the most innovative research techniques, including a blood test involving a marine mollusc. One of the partnerships that contribute to ensuring the squad are ahead of the game is with the pathology labatories at St Helier Hospital, Carlshalton and Birmingham’s Heartlands hospital.

The innovative blood test, which uses luminous chemicals taken from the common piddock, a marine mollusc, has been utilised by the RYA support team working closely with the developers Knight Scientific. Preliminary evidence has suggested that the test may detect the earliest signs of infection and overtraining in the sailors.

The test uses a pinprick of blood which is then mixed in a test tube with pholasin, a protein which gives off light when in contact with free radical chemicals from the mollusc. The light levels emitted are measured and can provide vital information on whether treatment for the infection should begin, training continue or whether extra rest is necessary.

“Our primary objective was to monitor the athletes individually and to reduce the number of training days lost through illness or infection” said EIS Applied Physiologist (Haematology) Dr Brian Moore.

“This was especially true given the racing conditions in Qingdao. We developed integrated systems that facilitated real time (within minutes) haematological and biochemical analysis. This enabled us to provide rapid information to the team physician Dr David Gorrod, Senior Sports Scientist, Dr Pete Cunningham and EIS Nutritionist Nathan Lewis, enabling performance impacting decisions to be made” he added.

This new method of measuring white blood cell activity has proved to be an effective tool for monitoring interventions that have a proven impact on performance within the sailing squad. With the light winds in Qingdao, EIS Nutritionist Nathan Lewis and Pete Cunningham needed to work with the team to reduce the sailor’s bodyweight whilst maintaining training loads.

“Cutting athletes bodyweight through energy restriction can delay recovery from heavy training and in turn place the athlete at an increased risk of infection” said Lewis. “This test provided an additional means of monitoring the immune system, which is sensitive to mental and physical stress, and in turn helped guide some of the nutrition support strategies and supplementation practices” he added.
RYA’s Senior Sport Scientist Pete Cunningham said;
“It was clear that this assay developed by Knight Scientific is very sensitive to stress, albeit physical or mental stress and illness, and was successfully used by Skandia Team GBR in the run up to the Olympics to monitor recovery and look for early warning signals of illness.”
Whilst the technique has predominantly been used within sailing, there’s no reason why other sports can’t benefit from this scientific breakthrough.

Photography © Getty Images



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