Physiology: 'There are things we can do to help athletes reach their potential'

Physiologist Andrew Jones (left) tells Kate Hilpern about the impact his science has had on sport
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The Independent Online

Knowing that you have had some influence on the success of a high profile athlete is immensely satisfying, says sports scientist Professor Andrew Jones. He should know, having helped Paula Radcliffe to get back on her feet during a difficult stage in her early career, and having worked with her on and off ever since.

"Back in the early 1990s, there was fairly limited opportunity for athletes to engage with sports scientists in terms of having their physiology measured and monitored, and receiving feedback on the best approaches to help them fulfil their potential," says Jones, a BASES high performance sport accredited physiologist. "But I knew Paula's coach and he realised that I might just be able to help her with a few problems she was having. He explained that despite being a very talented junior cross country and track runner, she wasn't running as well as she had previously. So I organised a series of tests for her and we uncovered the problem and corrected her efficiency. Paula became hooked on what sports science could achieve for her and we've established a close working relationship ever since."

Today, the impact of sport science on the functioning of top athletes is well recognised. "The very fact that there aren't too many elite sports performers who aren't linked to sports scientists is testament to this," says Jones. "We can probably add a percentage or two to an athlete's performance, which might not sound like much, but at world class level, that can be the difference between winning an Olympic medal and not making the final at all."

Not all athletes need all the services that sports science can offer, he admits. "But there are certainly things that we can add to the mix to help them reach their full potential."

Jones's interest in the subject was born out of his passion for running. "I was an international distance runner as a junior, and was interested in the scientific factors that influenced my performance, so a degree in sports science made perfect sense," he says.

Once he'd started studying at Brighton University in 1988, however, his running career was hampered by a number of illnesses and injuries. The academic side of sport took over, although like many students of sports science, he hadn't decided on a specific career at that point.

Jones remembers his undergraduate studies as excellent training. "The degree in sports science is excellent because it covers such a wide range of scientific disciplines which impact on sport and exercise generally - things like physiology, biomechanics, psychology and sociology, as well as a broad scientific training in areas like statistics."

Having graduated, he looked to specialise. An opening for a PhD came up at Brighton University in the subject that Jones had studied for his undergraduate dissertation - exercise physiology.

"In fact, it was even more specifically related to distance running, so it suited me perfectly," he recalls.

From there, he crossed the pond to the University of California in Los Angeles, to study a postdoctoral research training in respiratory physiology and medicine. "It was incredibly exciting because the laboratory I was working in was one of the premier laboratories in the world of its kind," he says.

A year later, Jones realised that he'd specialised so much that his work was closer to medicine than elite sport. He returned to the UK, where he worked as a sports physiologist in Cardiff for the Welsh Institute of Sport. His role here involved providing scientific support services to athletes from sports ranging from rugby to badminton and athletics to netball.

In 1996, Jones decided it was time for a change once again. "It had been a great experience, but I found that providing these services meant I wasn't actually furthering my knowledge. I realised I needed to move back towards academia."

A post as senior lecturer in exercise physiology at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) provided the answer. Jones spent eight years there, rising through the ranks to reader then professor within just three years. In the summer of 2005, he was appointed at Exeter University as professor of applied physiology.

"I have the dream job now," says Jones. "When I went to LA, I went too far away from sport and when I went to Cardiff, I went too far away from research, and now I've found a niche in the middle."

He takes particular pride in the fact that his work can be applied directly to sport. "This has always been important to me," says Jones, who points out that even in his early days at MMU, he was able to fit some consultancy work with different sports bodies around his lecturing - where he was able to help runners, such as Paula Radcliffe, achieve their potential. As he was promoted, Jones inevitably did less teaching and more research and while he tries to get it published in the best journals he can, he's equally keen to apply it to athletic performance.

"I guess if I'm honest, there is an element of living vicariously through athletes. I've worked with Paula for so long that it's incredibly gratifying to see her demonstrate the talent she has," he says.

Jones believes that to be successful in working with top athletes as a sports scientist, you need both an excellent scientific training and a fascination with a particular sport. "I don't think it's really possible to be an expert physiologist across a range of sports. Instead, I think you need to be fairly specialist."

His own background in distance running, he believes, not only helps in the content of his work, but in communicating effectively with other distance runners and their coaches.

He adds that you need to have excellent interpersonal skills. "You need the ability to convey information in a lucid fashion and jargon-free way so that the athletes and coaches can apply what you say. You need to be approachable, not stuck in the white coat syndrome."

Asked if there are any downsides to his job, Jones pauses thoughtfully. "There is never enough time, but I think that comes with the job and the pressure is something that you hopefully thrive on. I honestly don't think I can think of anything else. It's just a really fun job."

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