Science and Triathlon Conference
For the first time since it began in 2011, the International Triathlon Union’s Science and Triathlon Conference was held outside of Europe, moving to Edmonton for its North American debut. That wasn’t the only big difference for this conference – this year’s version focussed much more on the “science” than previous editions, which some had felt had become more of a coaches forum than a chance to delve into the latest scientific research in sport.
That very much fit into ITU president Marisol Casado’s vision when she put together the first conference in her home country of Spain in 2011.
“Science is so important in triathlon, an extra second in transition could make or break an elite race, but it also has a larger role to play for all triathletes as I believe using scientific principles is the best way to the sport safe for everyone: juniors, age-groupers and paratriathletes,” she said at the time. “Overall, triathlon is a dynamic sport, always moving and changing, and once you consider the three legs, there are still underlying decisions to make about bikes, wetsuits, pacing, transitions and more. I believe it’s the nature of the sport that opens it up to different and special research, and scientific applications. So, I hope this conference is just the start of future collaboration between triathlon and science, as it becomes a place for researchers working on triathlon to be recognized for their contributions and where new ideas can be discussed.”
She got her wish in Edmonton. While some of the world’s premier coaches were on hand – Inaki Arenal, the high level performance team manager of the Spanish Triathlon Federation and British triathlon coach Malcolm Brown (who coaches the Brownlee brothers among many other top U.K. triathletes) – the program included presentations from some of the world’s most renowned sports scientists. We profile Dr. Stephen Cheung (p.58), who offered a review of the latest scientific research around heat acclimatization, an area almost every triathlete struggles with at some point.
The conference kicked off with an enlightening talk by science journalist Alex Hutchinson, who set things up with an enlightening look at the hype and reality of sports science, setting the tone for two days of information dissemination.
One of the most popular presentations was by Ross Tucker, the chief scientist for World Rugby, who flew in from South Africa to present his thoughts on talent identification and development. His riveting talk emphasized that trying to identify potential elite athletes too early typically doesn’t work.
“Early specialization success is not the norm,” Tucker says, citing examples of 11- and 13-year-old rugby tournaments that were horrible predictors of eventual success as almost none of the early developers continued on to elite careers. It’s not just talent or the training a young athlete does that might help them develop to elite levels, it’s a complicated interplay of the two, Tucker says.
Time and again the scientists on hand seemed to be parlaying a clear message: sometimes the simplest and common sense methods make the biggest difference. Carl Foster from the University of Wisconsin-la Crosse, who has worked with the U.S.’S national speed skating squad for years, was able to cite his research that simply monitoring perceived exertion can serve as a great way to monitor training stress. Both Arenal and Brown offered concrete examples of their work with numerous Olympic and world champions on just how simple a successful training program can and should be – patience and consistency being the two main ingredients.
Providing an inspirational message to go along with the scientific information was keynote speaker Mark Pollock. From Northern Ireland, Pollock took silver and bronze medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2002 after losing his sight at the age of 22. After that, he became the first blind man to race to the South Pole. In 2010, he fell out of a second-storey window, suffered a brain injury and became paralyzed. Determined that he’s going to find a cure for paralysis, he’s now using a robotic exoskeleton and is training for a marathon.—km