Four scientists debated what makes an Olympian last night at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, asking which is more important – body, brains or what is in your belly?
Prof. Dave Collins, from the University of Central Lancashire, argued that mental power was just as important, if not more so, than physical power. “One big reason why medal winning athletes go further, faster, higher than others is because they believe they can,” said Prof. Collins.
Drawing on his research with body builders, he explained how participants were given a placebo drug but were told it was a performance-enhancing steroid. In every case the amount of weight the participants were able to lift increased by up to 12.5% under the placebo. Once the participants were informed the tablets they had taken were actually saccharine, the improvement immediately reduced proving that it really is mind over matter.
However Prof. Andy Jones, who worked as part of Paula Radcliffe’s training team, showed detailed information of the world-record holder’s fitness programme arguing that physiology is more important than psychology.
Using research carried out at the University of Exeter, Prof. Jones was able to accurately predict Radcliffe’s word beating marathon time of 2:15:25 hours two weeks before the marathon took place. “With this technology we can predict the timing of long distance runners with only a 0.2-0.4% error of accuracy,” said Prof. Jones.
Intrigued by the dominance of successful East African athletes in the Olympic track events, Dr Yannis Pitsiladis has spent the last ten years at the University of Glasgow trying to find an answer to athletic success in genetics.
“Humans are 99.9% the same, yet even slight differences in genetics can result in large differences in phenotype”, argued Dr Pitsiladis, whilst admitting that there is still no evidence available to support the notion that genetics plays any determinant factor in the success of athletes.
“When competing at such a high level where talent, training and motivation are the same, it is the little things that matter,” was the view from nutritional scientist Dr Ron Maughan of Loughborough University. Although scientific evidence supporting the importance of a high carbohydrate diet has been around since the 1920s, coaches and trainers have been slow in paying attention to nutrition argued Dr. Maughan. “Diet significantly influences athletic performance. All athletes should adopt specific nutritional strategies before, during and after training and competition to maximise their mental and physical performance” said Dr Maughan in the IOC Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition 2010.
This Thursday the role of performance enhancers in sports will be examined at the Science Festival in an event titled ‘Designer Athletes: Fair Play or Foul Play?’ with Greg Whyte who recently trained comedians David Walliams and Jon Bishop for their Sports Relief challenges.