Sport scientists helped Britain's athletes reach new heights in Beijing. Dan Poole finds them in preparation for London 2012

The Great Britain team returned from the Beijing Olympics covered in glory, not to mention weighed down with medals: 47 in all. The accolades didn't stop there, with triple gold medal-winning sprint cyclist Chris Hoy going on to pick up the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award.

Since when did a sport such as cycling become successful and recognisable enough for one of its protagonists to beat the glamorous world of Formula One – represented by Lewis Hamilton on this occasion – into second place? The Sports Personality of the Year is an award that has recently been won by boxers, cricketers, rugby players and footballers. Even when Olympic winners have come to the fore it's been those from track and field rather than the smooth pine of the velodrome. Just how did our cyclists get so good?

The importance of the relationship between an athlete and his or her coach is well known. But the success of Britain's cyclists, along with that of many other athletes from Team GB, can also be attributed to the strength and prominence of sport science in the UK – an area of training and assistance that might not immediately spring to mind.

"The support system that British Cycling has developed – including sport science, sport medicine and coaching – has had a massive impact on the performance of athletes," says Nigel Mitchell, performance nutritionist with the British Cycling team. "We're not sending any more athletes to the games than we did to Barcelona, Atlanta or Sydney. Yet we're getting a much better return on the medals. Something is different there."

Sport science started to have a significant impact once lottery funding was made available for Olympic sports in 1996 – the same year that Great Britain performed particularly poorly at the Atlanta games, finishing 36th in the medals table. The forward momentum was maintained with the creation of the English Institute of Sport (EIS) in 2002, which meant sport science and medical support services could be provided for athletes through a network of regional centres.

What exactly does the sport science service entail? There are seven core areas: biomechanics; strength and conditioning; psychology; talent identification; physiology; performance analysis; and nutrition. The idea is to understand and subsequently enhance athletes' performance through the application of scientific knowledge, as well as providing advice and support to coaches. It works along the same lines as Sir Clive Woodward's mantra for winning England the Rugby World Cup in 2003: by doing "100 things one per cent better".

Ken van Someren is head of the physiology service at the EIS, as well as being a practising physiologist with the British flat-water canoeing team and chair of the division of sport and performance for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES). "The EIS operates as a network, so the physiologists working in Manchester with the cycling team will be working alongside nutritionists and psychologists, as well as being part of a network of about 25 physiologists working with all sorts of different sports," he says.

"What we attempt to provide is this added value, so you're not just getting the skills and expertise of one sport scientist, but the whole institute behind you. Because of that we've been able to come on leaps and bounds, and in some cases leapfrog professional sports."

Van Someren's interest in sport science sprang from his own sporting achievements. He competed at four world championships for the British sprint canoeing team, and then a degree in sport science at St Mary's University in London, followed by a PhD in sport physiology, gave him the foundation he needed to embark on a career.

Mitchell came into the field of sport nutrition when it was in its infancy. He helped to create it and continues to develop it, acting as a mentor for fellow nutritionists, and has recently helped the sailing and swimming teams to establish their nutrition services.

Mitchell did a degree in clinical nutrition followed by a Masters in sport science which, he explains, is just one of the ways to get into his field: "The routes in are either a nutrition degree, a dietetic degree or a sport science-type degree, followed by appropriate postgraduate qualifications and training in sport science. It means that there is more than one pathway in, but sport science is central to it all."

With Van Someren's assistance the flat-water canoeing team came back from Beijing with a gold and bronze medal. He explains his role in that success as being twofold: initially monitoring and validating training and then moving on to specific preparation for competition. "I ensure that the training programme is made up of the right blend of training and that the training, importantly, is doing what the coaches want it to do," he says. "As part of that monitoring we might be out on the riverbank measuring various physiological parameters, or from time to time getting the athletes into the lab."

Then the team has to make sure they get it right on the day. "That spans things such as pacing strategies, working closely with nutrition in terms of supplements that may be beneficial for a specific event and – particularly when it came to Beijing – acclimatisation and jet-lag strategies," says Van Someren.

The same exacting and detailed planning went into the British Cycling team's training, which goes some way to explaining their medal bonanza: six golds, three silvers and one bronze. "There are different needs and requirements for different disciplines in cycling," says Mitchell. For example, he says supporting Jamie Staff, who won gold in the men's team sprint, was different to working with Bradley Wiggins, gold medallist in the individual pursuit. "So, while there is an overriding philosophy, the actual interventions are slightly different depending on what different athletes are doing."

Van Someren, Mitchell and the rest of the UK's sport scientists are already looking towards 2012. Most Olympic sports operate on a four-year cycle to allow the maximum amount of time for an evaluation of performance at the previous Games and preparation for the next. Should a career in sport science sound appealing you'd do well to take a similarly proactive line: when it comes to an industry as competitive as this there really is no time to waste.

"I get a lot of people saying that they want to be sport nutritionists, but for every 100 there is probably one person who will get a job doing it," says Mitchell. "It takes a lot of hard work, knowledge, skill and tenacity, but if you like the work it's the best job in the world."

Van Someren points out the importance of getting experience; without it you're likely to be one of the disappointed 99. "Almost without fail, every single one of our practitioners working for the institute started out doing work on a voluntary basis – carrying bottles on to the pitch at half time, for example – just to build relationships with coaches and athletes, learning the sport and then going from there," he says.

"The message to graduates or would-be sport science students is to combine academic work with getting as much experience as possible."

'The wider the range of sports you can access the better'

Pete Lindsay is a sport psychologist with the British Olympic boxing and judo teams, and the lead psychologist for the Yorkshire branch of the English Institute of Sport. He did a degree in psychology at Liverpool John Moores University and went on to do a Masters in sport psychology at Sheffield Hallam.

"I've been interested in combat sports since being a young lad, although when I first walked into a boxing hall and told the head coach that I'd come from a background in snooker he raised his eyebrows! Boxing is unique and you need to spend time in it to appreciate it. With psychology you've got to understand the culture and context you're working in, as well as the personalities and socio-demographics of the boxers.

For the Olympics I was in the holding camp in Macau, having flown out with the boxing squad. When the boxing squad moved to Beijing I then moved over to work with the judo squad in Macau. The two sports I work with are both 'weight-making' sports: in judo the athletes have to make weight on a particular day; in boxing they have to keep around a weight for an extended period of time. It places extra physical and emotional demands upon our athletes, which adds to the mix of what they have to deal with. That's where having a wide support team is key.

When I was looking for a job I volunteered in football, athletics, snooker, golf and rugby union. The wider the range of sports you can get access to the better. Like it or not, it's a competitive industry to get into, so it is about getting your name known and getting your contacts built up, alongside your academic qualifications. It's the advice we give to any athlete: know your goals and work the plan."

'I was based at the warm-up pool'

Cath Gilby, a physiologist with British Disability Swimming, accompanied the British Paralympic swimming team to Beijing last year. She studied sport and exercise sciences at Birmingham University before doing a Masters in exercise physiology at Sheffield Hallam.

"The key thing for me at the Paralympics was making sure that we were the best prepared we possibly could be when we got out there. Once I was in the holding camp in Macau, it was a case of making sure it ran smoothly and people were acclimatising, be that through daily monitoring sheets or making sure they were hydrated. It was also a case of fine tuning training sets with swimmers, working very closely with the coaching team to ensure that each athlete was appropriately prepared.

During the Games themselves, I was based at the warm-up and recovery pool, which you won't have seen on the television. I was there to support the athletes' preparation for racing and then make sure they were recovering when they finished.

I was often the first member of the team to see the athletes after racing, so I had to develop the skills to deal with people who had had success, but also those who had experienced failure. I had to say the right things, which is something I discussed with our sport psychology team. That's one of our key strengths: although we have a number of different sport disciplines we work in an integrated fashion.

The key thing for anyone wanting to get into sport science is experience. During your degree, get out there and volunteer your services. It is also a good idea to be a member of BASES as a student, because they run lots of workshops where you can begin to develop skills and get qualifications. You've got to make yourself stand out."