Preventing injury and illness in athletes

  • 26 July 2014
  • From the section Health
Swimming Image copyright Getty Images

Several big names have pulled out of the Commonwealth Games in the past few weeks with injuries and illness.

Getting an athlete to the start line fit and healthy is no easy feat, but monitoring every aspect of their lives is one way of trying to ensure it happens.

"We have realised that injury and illness are our biggest threat," says physiotherapist Ashleigh Wallace, from the English Institute of Sport.

The EIS has a department which specialises in athlete health to combat that very threat.

Its approach is to analyse the daily health and performance of each individual sportsman and woman to work out where their breaking point is.

Tracking trends

According to Ashleigh Wallace, who leads the research and innovation team on athlete health, this area has come a long way in the past 10 years.

"Every sport now asks how well or unwell their athletes are every day then we look at trends.

"If we notice a small increase in shoulder injuries in a certain month, for example, then we ask why and look at what they were doing in training."

Information on everything from energy levels and nutrition to sleep, hygiene and mental stress are gathered in a bid to maximise their chances.

Mathematical models are then used to analyse trends and the information is all fed into a giant database.

It is number-crunching of minutiae on a grand scale, but it has an important purpose.

"We need an early warning system, which shows when something is not right," says Ms Wallace.

Commonwealth pull outs

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Double Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah withdrew from the Games after he was unable to recover from an illness in time.

He said: "My body is telling me it's not ready to race yet.

"Training is getting better but I need another few weeks to get back to the level I was at in 2012 and 2013."

Meanwhile, Jamaican Yohan Blake, Olympic silver medallist at London 2012 in the 100m and 200m, was ruled out because he needed a hamstring operation.

And England's Katarina Johnson-Thompson withdrew from the women's heptathlon on Monday with a foot injury.

BBC Sport: Mo Farah pulls out

Coughs and sneezes

Illness is more difficult to control, partly because athletes are more prone to picking up infections.

Dr Niall Elliott, head of sports medicine at Team Scotland during the Commonwealth Games, says their training makes them vulnerable.

"Athletes push their bodies so hard that training has the same impact as chemotherapy, and their immune systems are susceptible to coughs and colds."

And the impact of a virus or stomach upset, even several weeks afterwards, could be the difference between a gold and silver medal.

"A 1% decrease in performance can mean milliseconds on the track for a 100m runner, or several strides for a marathon runner."

That is why Dr Elliott and his team at SportScotland Institute of Sport are obsessed by hand hygiene.

Everyone uses hand sanitisers, as they do in hospitals, to reduce the risk of germs being passed to athletes.

Support staff are also taught hand-washing techniques and then tested with a UV light stick to see what has been missed.

All in the mind

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Roger Federer has a big sleep before matches

Recovering from illness and physical exertions is almost as important as training, Dr Elliott says.

"Sleep is fantastic. We look at sleep patterns closely to see what we can do to influence them."

Roger Federer has talked about needing 11 hours of sleep before a tennis match, but this becomes a challenge when athletes are travelling across time zones.

That is when their natural rhythms can become disturbed, affecting their recovery and performance.

In the end, though, despite all the injury prevention work and careful hygiene, accidents do happen.

Dr Elliott says: "As an athlete, results mean everything. That's why it's not just the health aspect we focus on. There's the psychology too, the stress and anxiety.

"Athletes feel a great burden, because if they don't pay attention they can miss one opportunity - and it might be the only one they get."

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