The science and technology behind the UK’s top athletes has been discussed at a major conference into the subject of sports engineering.

The UK Focus for Biomedical Engineering Sports Engineering Conference, chaired by Professor Lionel Tarassenko FREng, at the Royal Academy of Engineering on Thursday 24 March, brought together eight of the country’s top experts on subjects surrounding engineering in sport, performance modelling, tendon repair ad the ethical dilemmas of sports technology.

Phillip Greenish, Chief Executive of the Academy said: “Bringing together the country’s top experts to the one conference provided the delegates with a broad range of highly technical and up-to-date information on the field of sports engineering.

“The UK leads the world in many sports such as cycling, sailing and swimming and while this success is down to the talent and hard work of our athletes, it is also due in no small part to the teams of engineers and scientists behind the scenes.”

(Click each title to download the presentation)

Professor Michael Caine – Director, Sports Technology Institute, Loughborough University

Sports technology and innovation (1.07 MB) - Professor Caine discussed Loughborough University’s diverse sports research portfolio, which typically has 30 research projects running at any one time. He noted that sport is becoming a big economic driver and explained the technology being developed by his team is helping elite athletes in activities such as golf, swimming and cycling. He is also working with major companies such as Nike and Adidas to create clothing and equipment for the retail market. Professor Caine said that the interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects stimulated by the Olympics cannot be ignored and pointed to sports engineering as a key conduit to this. He also stated that universities are well-placed to act as a medium between regulators, industry and athletes, citing the example of Paralympic runners, who could conceivably outrun able-bodied runners, but are restricted more by politics than by technology.

Dr Scott Drawer – Head of Research and Innovation, UK Sport

The role of sports science and engineering in preparing British athletes (4.17 MB) – Dr Drawer discussed the role of technology in complementing athletes and their intensive training regimes. He spoke of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ (fractions of seconds between 1st and 2nd place, where engineering is able to make a difference) and how UK Sport is looking outside traditional domains to exploit technology that exists in other fields. He also talked about the role of coaching and how new technologies can help focus the training process. Dr Drawer concluded that there is no holy grail for a successful athlete with many factors being out of the athlete’s control. Technology and accessories are the final part of the process, but in no way replace the hard work and dedication of the individual.

Dr Mark Thompson, Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford

Engineering tendon repair (1.21 MB) – Dr Thompson spoke about the inadequacies in current treatments for Achilles tendon repair, a painful and disabling injury frequently suffered by athletes. He discussed the current multi-disciplinary research that is taking place in Oxford University, to accelerate tendon healing and analyse the mechanical healing outcome, using a blood platelet treatment to show how the clotting cells can protect from further damage. This treatment has been applied in orthodontics and orthopaedic surgery and is currently been trialled as a treatment to be used in the NHS.

Professor Steve Hakke – Director, Centre for Sports Engineering Research, Sheffield Hallam University

Modelling performance (1.29 MB) – Professor Haake spoke about how the impact of engineering and technology in sport can be measured, and addressed whether it was possible to use technology to predict how an athlete would perform. He discussed how Newton’s laws, now more than 400 years old, still provide the basis for much of his work and how mathematical models reveal much about how performance can be increased. Using tennis and cycling as examples, he showed that technology’s influence can be demonstrated quantitatively. Models can predict the usefulness of an intervention and allow the development of coaching tools. Professor Haake also spoke about the impact of a country’s population on performance, stating that as populations increase, so should athletic performance.

Professor Guang Zhong Yang FREng – Institute of Biomedical Engineering, Imperial College London

Pervasive sensing in elite sports (3.29 MB) – Professor Yang described his internationally renowned research that includes the clinical application of a ‘Body Sensor Network’ which provides personalised wireless monitoring platforms that are pervasive, intelligent and context-aware.

Professor Chris Cooper – Director, Centre for Radicals and Oxidative Stress, University of Essex

Muscle oxygenation studies in athletes (714.84 KB) – Professor Cooper explained how near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) can be used as a non-invasive technique capable of measuring haemoglobin in the brain and muscles. This is a technique already used in medicine, but until now, a lack of truly portable devices has hampered its use in sport. Professor Cooper showcased the development of these devices to monitor real time changes in muscle oxygenation in elite athletes, focusing on the world record beating UK short track speed skating team.

Dr Marco Cardinale – Head of Sports Science and Research, British Olympic Association

The science of training (1.57 MB) – Dr Cardinale discussed how the use of technology acts as a guide to sports training by analysing performance trends. He spoke about how these trends can help coaches and sports scientists to improve training prescriptions and as a consequence improve performance and talent development in sport. Dr Cardinale reminded the audience that in terms of the science of training, the work for 2012 has been done. The British Olympic Association is working ahead towards the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with teams of not just athletes but also coaches, scientists and engineers.

Dr David James – Senior Sports Engineer, Sheffield Hallam University

Ethical issues around medical technology and the Paralympics (1.90 MB) – Dr James (an Academy Public Engagement Fellow) described the ongoing race to create the best technology in sport, and how and why the advancement of prosthetic limbs in disability sport is causing controversy. He focused on South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who has been the subject of a number of legal cases due to his prosthetic blades. He raised the question of whether technology could be considered to be a form of doping and revealed that we are just at the dawn of the prosthetic age.

Notes for editors

  1. The Royal Academy of Engineering

    Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

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Ed Holmes on 0207 766 0655