There was a time when sports science was viewed by many as a track-suited football trainer running onto the pitch clutching a magic sponge. It was all rather rudimentary, all groin strains and hamstrings.
Every major sports team has a team of health professionals specialising in everything from medicine to psychology and there are clear overlaps between their work and advances being made in the general medical field.
Football is one of the sports leading the way. Carl Wells PhD, BSc (hons), an accredited sport scientist and Sport Science Lead, Perform at St. George’s Park, the FA’s football centre in the UK Midlands, said that the game has had to turn to science given the way the sport has changed.
He said: “Sports science in the game has really emerged in the past ten to twelve years.
“Previously, you would hear of players doing a lot of running, going for long plods, which may have had a good psychological effect but did not help with the specific demands of the sport.
“It did not take account of the parameters under which the body operates in football, the loads placed on the body when accelerating and decelerating, the multi-directional nature of the game.
“However, as the game has become faster, players have evolved to become quicker, fitter and more powerful, and sports science is increasingly used to measure the effect that has on their bodies.
“Today, sports science underpins everything they do and the players are tested to measure the effect that playing is having using the latest scientific knowledge. It’s about the use of evidence-based practice to ensure optimum performance gains.
“Clubs at all levels of the game are making use of the latest scientific knowledge and that is having a knock-on effect as we better understand the demands that intense intermittent physical exercise has on the human body.”
Vitamin D research casts light on sporting performance
Another example of sport and science overlapping is is work being done in America on the impact of Vitamin D on athletic performance.
According to analysis published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, a lack of what is often known as the ’sunshine vitamin‘ may affect muscle function and fitness levels, reducing sporting prowess and having wider health ramifications.
Identifying the problem is important not just for sports men and women but also for the wider population and study author Stella Lucia Volpe, R.D., a professor of nutrition science at Drexel University, has welcomed the fact that blood tests for vitamin D levels are becoming more common as part of routine visits to the doctor.
The research outlines the dramatic effect of Vitamin D deficiencies on athletic performance. In one research programme, professional athletes recorded improved sprint times and better vertical jumps when they took supplements for eight weeks. Ballet dancers reported greater strength and vertical jump height as well as fewer injuries when they took a daily supplement for four months.
According to the study, sufficient vitamin D levels leads to reduced levels of inflammation, pain, and weakness, improved exercise capacity and better protein synthesis within the muscles, all crucial to anyone doing sport.
The challenge is that the body can not make vitamin D on its own rather obtaining it from the sun (a few minutes of exposure a day is all you need) or from foods, like fatty fish or fortified milk and orange juice.
Stella Vope says that deficiencies are common, especially during winter months and in people who live farther from the equator.
Stella said: “The reason for this increased prevalence of vitamin D deficiency is not yet known. It is perhaps due to increased use of sunscreen, people going in the sun less, people covering themselves more. However, it may also be a result of more people being analysed for vitamin D.
“Vitamin D blood analysis is not routinely done but has been requested much more often by physicians over the past five years or so.
“If it were up to me, I think we all should be analysed once a year or at least once every other year.”
Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with a substantially increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in older people, according to an international team led by Dr David Llewellyn at the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK.
The team discovered that elderly Americans who took part in the Cardiovascular Health Study and were moderately deficient in vitamin D had a 53 per cent increased risk of developing dementia of any kind, and the risk increased to 125 per cent in those who were severely deficient.
Similar results were recorded for Alzheimer’s disease, with the moderately deficient group 69 per cent more likely to develop this type of dementia, rising to a 122 per cent increased risk for those severely deficient.
Dr Llewellyn said: “We expected to find an association between low Vitamin D levels and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but the results were surprising – we actually found that the association was twice as strong as we anticipated.
“Clinical trials are now needed to establish whether eating foods such as oily fish or taking vitamin D supplements can delay or even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. We need to be cautious at this early stage and our latest results do not demonstrate that low vitamin D levels cause dementia. That said, our findings are very encouraging, and even if a small number of people could benefit, this would have enormous public health implications given the devastating and costly nature of dementia.”
Research collaborators included experts from Angers University Hospital, Florida International University, Columbia University, the University of Washington, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan. The study was supported by the Alzheimer’s Association, the Mary Kinross Charitable Trust, the James Tudor Foundation, the Halpin Trust, the Age Related Diseases and Health Trust, the Norman Family Charitable Trust, and the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Research and Care South West Peninsula.