Using Science to Help Prepare Welsh Athletes for the Commonwealth Games

Article by Daniel Nash (KESS 2 funded PhD researcher, Cardiff Metropolitan University)

I started my KESS 2 PhD in the Cardiff School of Sport & Health Sciences in 2019, focusing on sport and exercise physiology, and my research is supervised by Drs Michael Hughes, Richard Webb, Rebecca Aicheler and Paul Smith. The ESF-funded KESS 2 programme allows PhD students such as myself to link academic expertise with active companies and organisations in Wales and I have been fortunate enough to be paired with three fantastic industry partners; Sport Wales, Welsh Athletics and Welsh Triathlon for my PhD research project.

My PhD is focused on the cytokine responses to endurance training. Cytokines are small messenger molecules produced by the body and my research is focused on a particular set of cytokines which appear to reflect some of the stresses of endurance exercise. By characterising the responses to individual exercise sessions and to long-term training we are exploring the use of cytokine responses for guiding training recommendations, while also enhancing scientific knowledge about this subject. We believe that these cytokines may be particularly useful biomarkers for quantifying the stress imparted by long-duration training sessions and for establishing how well an athlete is coping with their current training schedule.

Alongside my academic research, I have been gaining industry experience through operating as a sport physiologist for my partner organisations. I have been especially lucky that my PhD has coincided with the preparations for the 2022 Commonwealth Games taking place in Birmingham, only 2 hours away from my university. As part of my sport physiologist role, I have helped advise and test many Welsh competitors from both Athletics and Triathlon categories.

Much of my sport physiology work involves carrying out exercise tests on the athletes. These involve the athletes performing progressive exercise stages in their chosen activity (e.g. swim, bike, run), while being monitored for physiological markers such as blood lactate, heart rate and oxygen consumption. The results are used by coaches to individualise training recommendations for athletes. Formal testing like this usually occurs around twice per year in a controlled laboratory environment. However, more frequently I also attend the athletes’ training sessions where I monitor physiological and perceptual responses. This allows us to: a) translate the laboratory data to the athlete’s usual environment, b) compare the responses to training with the coaches’ intentions and c) track progress over the course of the season.

An additional project has been to assess the effectiveness of the altitude training camps that are used by my partner organisations. We can quantify this effectiveness through measuring the amount of haemoglobin (an oxygen-carrying protein) that an athlete has in their blood before and after attending an altitude training camp.

I have also had the opportunity to work with younger athletes, who hope to make the Commonwealth Games in 4- or 8-years’ time. We have been able to expose these athletes to some of the sport science support services that will be more readily available to them as they progress through their athletic careers, with the aim of ensuring that they are doing the basics right in training while also learning how to make the most of the future support that they will receive.

Helping these athletes in their preparations has been a very rewarding experience and I feel privileged to have been able to play a small part in their journey. I look forward to concluding this Commonwealth cycle by providing physiology support to the Welsh athletes at the Games, which will also be a nice break from writing up my thesis!