How relevant is sports science research for elite athletes?

Elite athletes are different from normal humans. That probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those of us involved in sport, especially if we’ve spent time around such athletes and seen their advantages close up. In my time as an athlete, I saw some very impressive feats from some highly talented athletes – huge single leg box jumps, massive lifts in the gym, and, in one case, someone doing 40 pull-ups in under 40 seconds. As the influence of science within sport grows, coaches and support staff are spending more time reading research papers, and using the information contained within to guide their practice. However, there is a potential issue within such practice that doesn’t always get the consideration it perhaps deserves: most of these studies aren’t carried out on elite athletes.

Why elite matters

Does this matter? Well, in my first ever HMMR Media article, I wrote that “the conclusions of a study are only valid in the population used in the study .” For example, if the subjects within a paper were elderly females, we can’t (usually) reasonably extrapolate these findings to young males. Similarly, the effect of a certain intervention tested in recreational athletes, might not be found in elite athletes. If you’re working with elite athletes, you need to understand how to use the results of the study within the context of your athletes.

One example of this is the use of beetroot juice to enhance performance. Whilst the evidence for a performance enhancing effect of beetroot juice is strong, the majority of the research underpinning this finding is not carried out in elite athletes. The research that has been carried out in elite athletes tends to suggest no performance enhancing effect of beetroot juice, perhaps because elite athletes consume more nitrate containing vegetables than their non-athlete peers, and so don’t see a performance boost when they consume beetroot juice. These differences have the potential to be hugely important for elite athletes, especially when it comes to both supplement and training interventions.

Defining “elite”

There are two main issues when it comes to research carried out in elite athletes. The first is that elite athletes are, almost by definition, very rare beasts, such that recruiting sufficient numbers to research studies can be difficult. Elite athletes also are busy being elite, and typically don’t want to make changes to their training so that researchers can get a decent paper out of it. Furthermore, there is a lack of consensus as to what defines “elite” in the sporting world, meaning that researchers often state that they studied elite athletes, when they actually didn’t.

A recent example of this final point from this paper, which concluded that “the ACTN3 and ACE polymorphisms are not associated with running performance in elite athletes.” Such a conclusion obviously requires the subjects to have been elite athletes. In this particular paper, the authors utilized data from athletes with personal best times within 20% of the World Record. I personally wouldn’t define this as elite; in my first ever official 100m race, aged 13, I was just outside of this threshold, and I was a long way from elite. Additionally, the average 1500m personal best time within this group was around 3 minutes and 50 seconds, a time which 127 male athletes ran quicker than in 2017 in the UK alone. Should all these athletes be classed as elite, and, if not, how does this impact our interpretation of the results? Similarly, in a recent paper on “elite” 100m sprinters, the range of 100m times in the elite male group was 10.00 to 10.90 seconds. Whilst 10.00 is clearly elite, 10.90 likely wouldn’t win the UK under-17 national title.

This lack of consensus as to a definition of elite status is a problem well-recognized by sports science researchers. Indeed, some of the authors from the first paper I mentioned have previously written about the issues surrounding the definition of elite status in athletes. The solution is obvious: we need a consensus as to what determines elite athlete status in research, so that readers can better understand whether the research was actually conducted on elite athletes or not, and then better be able to place the findings of that research within their own unique contexts. A variety of different frameworks for defining elite athletes have been proposed, most recently in a 2015 paper by researchers from the UK and Ireland. Here, the authors recommend a multifactorial approach, taking into account the athletes highest level of achievement, success at that level, time spent at that level, competitiveness of that particular sport in an athletes country, and the global competitiveness of that sport. For each aspect, athletes get a score of 1-4, which is then weighted to give a complete score, with thresholds corresponding to different levels. But even this has issues; using their model, a third division football player (1 point) who has had a career of over 8 years at that level (4 points) in the UK (where football is the national sport – 4 points) would be classed as a competitive elite athlete, which I find difficult to reconcile with my definition of elite (although fortunately I just scrape into the successful elite category).

Clearly, for team sports, the definition of elite athlete status can be difficult to define, but in distance/time sports, it should be relatively straightforward; we can just use the athlete’s performance measures. This information can then be compared to a benchmark such as the Olympic qualifying time or world ranking. As a simple example, one might suggest that achieving the Olympic qualifying standard (currently 10.16 seconds for the men’s 100m) might be considered elite, or being ranked in the top-100 of the world (10.17 seconds for 100m men in 2017). Whilst these thresholds are notably more stringent than those utilized in the papers discussed previously, the term “elite” is commonly interpreted as meaning unusually exceptional and thus, by definition, rare.

Key takeaway

In summary, research is playing an increasingly important role in the training process of athletes at all levels. As we increase our understanding of differences between individuals, it’s clear that in many cases the performance level of subjects in studies can alter the findings, such that what is relevant for an elite athlete may not be for a recreational one, and vice versa.  Therefore, studies on elite athletes, whilst often difficult to carry out, are important to enhance our understanding of how to improve elite performance – but, crucially, there is no set definition on what an elite athlete is within the research. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, this debate will be settled, allowing us to better understand how research can be applied to various different contexts.