August E-News: The Science of Sports

The 2012 Olympic Games  are in full swing and for the next week, millions will be watching & cheering on athletes from around the world. This year’s Games include thirty-six large categories of sporting competition, ranging from gymnastics, cycling, swimming, and track and field to beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, Judo and more. And in every sport, athletes will have to overcome such physical properties as inertia, lift, drag, kinetic and potential energy, friction and even gravity. Join us as we celebrate the 2012 London Summer Olympics and the Science of Sports!  


When Pheidippides , the first known marathon runner, ran 26 miles (42.195 kilometers) from the Battle of Marathon with news of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians, he hadn’t consulted any of the era’s leading scientists on whether he should wear shoes, carbo-load, or do weeks of interval training. Given that he collapsed and died as soon as he delivered his news, maybe he should have. But modern athletes won’t make the same mistake.

Training for Olympic athletes has changed over the course of time from the classic belief-based coaching to a more modern evidence based coaching. Evidence based coaching determines an athletes training style based on whether their speed or strength is their greater asset.  Olympians of yesteryear shared the same goal, but they would hardly recognize today’s training techniques. To achieve the Olympian ideal of “faster, higher, stronger,” coaches now realize, it’s not about training harder it’s about training smarter. Behind every elite athlete is an army of scientists helping them achieve world records. As you watch the games—and observe the differences in times, routines, and results—you might wonder what factors make a difference in performance. Everyone is interested in knowing the secret to outstanding performance, and the secret is science! Biomechanical engineers, physiologists, psychologists, nutritionists, strength coaches, recovery experts and statistical analysts have turned the playing field into a science laboratory by allowing athletes and coaches to understand the science behind their sport, increasing their odds of standing on the podium and taking them one step closer to achieving their goal of Gold. Knowing the principles of a sport can empower both the athletes and the coaches, giving them a better understanding of how they should train and what techniques to use. 

Perhaps the most fundamental way science has advanced the world of sports is by empowering the athletes & coaches with knowledge of how the body responds to exercise & the reasoning behind it. This field is referred to as Sports Physiology. In some situations, physiologists use portable meters to measure sugar levels in the athlete’s blood, their heart rate, or the amount of lactate in their muscles, providing feedback data to coaches right there on the poolside or on the field. This data can help coaches devise training programs that have the greatest impact on performance. Rather than just eating their Wheaties, Olympians will guzzle beet juice before a workout, because their team of nutritionists has determined that the nitrates it contains can improve aerobic exercise performance by as much as 2 percent. They don’t just rub Bengay on tired muscles, they follow elaborate hydrotherapy regimens to limit muscle damage and reduce soreness by 16 percent. And instead of pounding out hour after hour of training, they sometimes do a targeted workout of insanely high intensity which can give them better results in as little as four minutes. Targeted physical conditioning and rehabilitation may represent the biggest improvements that science has had on sporting performance.

Back to the Basics of Biomechanics


Perhaps the most visibly high-tech field of sports science is biomechanics, the study of the body’s structure and function. For scientists focused on bodies, not gear, the work can range from analyzing the speed and strength components of the long jump to the most efficient execution of a back 2-1/2 somersault dive with two and a half twists off the 10-meter board. 

In recent years tools such as electronic pressure plates have been used to measure the force of athletes’ strides or jumps, and wind tunnels harnessed to explore how cyclists’ body positions affect their wind drag. Using computer software to analyze video footage of an athlete’s movement—called kinematics—has also become a vital part of the Olympic training routine. The data gathered by sports scientists has become a precious source of information for the coaches of top level athletes. Meanwhile coaches themselves are taking a more scientific approach to their work. Coaching science is a term that is becoming the norm in the world of sports. As coaches and scientists work together, they are finding ways to tailor the different tools of sports science and apply them in a unique way for each individual sport. 

Thousands of spectators will witness the results of science in action this summer in London, as competitors push ever closer to the ideal sprint, the flawless swim, the immaculate long jump along with many other sports. It took evolution millions of years to produce the modern human and centuries for coaches to improve athletic discipline and performance. Now scientists are taking the last step, helping athletes approach perfection.

The Biomechanics of Usain Bolt:

Discover the inner-working’s of the fastest man on earth alongside the scientists at MIT and see why he is considered a biomechanical marvel!  

The Impact of Jenny Simpson

See how Jenny Simpson regained her Olympic dream with the help of scientists and anti-gravity treadmill training.  

Maximizing the Long Jump of Bryan Clay

See how Bryan Clay is advancing the field of scientific research with the use of the BMW Velocity System, a new 3-D camera that could change the world of scientific measurement forever.

Science Technology Sets Sail 


Science technology secures a spot on the Olympic team in the games’ biggest crowd-pleaser, swimming.  The hydrodynamics wizards at Speedo, part of the Pentland Group, have jettisoned the “dermal denticles” used on swimsuits in 2000, with this year’s debut of the “Fastskin3” system: a combination of cap, goggles and suit that streamline swimmers into the closest thing to a barracuda this side of the ocean. And how better to break a world record than by swimming in pools designed by the engineers at Myrtha Pools, a division of A&T Europe S.p.a. with their new innovations that minimize waves at the water’s surface and currents below from increasing drag, which slows the swimmer’s speed. Seven Myrtha pools installed in the Aquatics Center promise the fastest water ever.

Catch the Olympic Spirit & Go for the Gold!

The Olympics can offer a unique opportunity to think about what makes a difference between those who medal and those who don’t. There may be displays of record-breaking talent in unexpected places, but there is plenty of science that underlies each sport. You and your family can turn the games into more than a spectator sport and have fun in between your favorite events! 

This month, take some time to explore the science of sports! These simple experiments & hands-on activities can spark family science explorations! As you watch the Games, have fun as you make your own real-world connections at home and uncover the science at work beneath the surface of your favorite sports or athletes’ medal-winning performances! Who knows, you might even find that the seed of a science project for the coming school year gets planted during your Olympic adventure!  Sport Science Experiments

Other Links & Resources:

NBC Learn and NBC Sports, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, explore the engineering and technology helping athletes maximize their performance at the 2012 London Games. 

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