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Science in Sport and the business of marginal gains

Dr. Marco Cardinale

January 31, 2012 16:00 pm

For most athletes, competing at the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of their career. A career characterised by hard work, years of training, endless hours of commitment and a strong partnership with their coaches. Coaching support is changed extensively over the years.

Science in Sport and the business of marginal gains

Nowadays, athletes are supported by extensive coaching support teams with various specialists supporting every aspects of preparation for the big event. Training, nutrition, sleep, travel, recovery, equipment needs are all supported by a scientific approach to maximise human performance and make sure the athletes get on the start line healthy and in great shape to have the best chance to perform at their best. The winning margins are getting smaller and smaller. This is because the number of competitors able to win a medal in any sport is increased enormously in the last 20 years.

As you can see below, the number of countries winning medals at the summer Olympics is increased enormously after the 1980 games in Moscow and it is likely to continue to increase in London. This means that winning a medal is becoming more and more difficult and athletes and support teams are looking at every possible area to identify marginal gains able to increase the likelihood of success.

number of countries winning medals at the summer Olympics


Science and technology play nowadays a crucial role for success in al sports. Every move can now be analysed in real time, every performance aspect as well as the technology used by athletes can be "dissected". Vancouver games showed how science and technology can now have a huge impact in coaching athletes (you can see here why Shaun White won gold in the Half Pipe and an example of the details we can now analyse).

The margins between winning and losing are very small. Fractions of seconds separated a gold medal from  silver, bronze or no medal at all in Vancouver. The same will happen in London.

Science has had a great impact in sport in the last 20 years due to the fact that more and more research is happening around the World. To give you an idea of how sports science research has evolved, just look at the graph below. This graph shows the number of scientific publications indexed in PubMed  (PubMed comprises more than 21 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books) with a keyword “strength training”. As you can see the body of knowledge on strength training is growing at exponential rate and it is very likely we will see more than 1800 scientific papers published on this topic in 2012 if the growth keeps following the current trend.


Research leading to knowledge on strength training

Research on clinical aspects of sports medicine keeps growing as well. In this review from Nichols published on the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2009, showing an audit of scientific literature between 1996 and 2005 you can see how quickly knowledge in clinical aspects of sports medicine is growing (see the graph below).

Research on clinical aspects of sports medicine keeps growing as well.


More knowledge in such areas means more possibilities to personalise training and identify ways to improve human performance using legal and safe interventions. To put it simply, science support in sports is not only about technology and gadgets, it is also about human interventions able to have positive impacts. Warm-up strategies, recovery strategies, training protocols, nutritional interventions, diagnostic approaches, all contribute to performance. Every day Team GB athletes receive excellent scientific support from their national governing bodies and from the home country sports institutes. Research and innovation activities are also run in parallel with services to identify all potential areas to improve performance. Science in sport can be defined as the science of marginal gains. Marginal gains are everywhere to be found, this is why partnership is essential. Research projects involving academic, government and industrial partners have been in fact supporting the journey of British athletes and coaches. An ambitious journey which is not going to stop in London, but will to continue in the years to come to show the best of British in many fields.

In this blog I will write about various aspects of science in sport and will try to identify topics which not only will help the readers understand more about the performance of our athletes but also hopefully will provide some useful information for the readers interested in implementing some of the science findings to change their lifestyle and/or adapt their exercise and nutritional habits.

So, stay tuned if you want to know more about science and sport.