Reflections on the 6th Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) Conference and Sports Dieticians Australia (SDA) Update: Research to Practice (Adelaide, South Australia; 10 – 12 April 2014). Written by Anna Saw (@annaesaw).
Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge Exercise & Sports Science Australia and Sports Dietitians Australia for all the work that went in to organising a very successful conference. Over 1000 delegates attended with diverse backgrounds, from those working to improve the health of clinical populations to those aiming to optimise the training and nutritional practices of athletes for peak performance. There was also a good balance between basic (mechanistic) and applied research. In amongst this diversity, there were some common themes I noted:
1. The ancient Greeks and Romans were on to something.
Acclaimed researchers such as Dr Michael Joyner, Prof Mark Hargreaves, and Prof Simon Gandevia (@SimonGandevia), all of whom have been working in their respective fields for decades, each paid homage to the evolution of their field. Ancient philosophers provided wise words which are still applicable today, whilst early athletes tried various training and supplementation regimes to get an edge in competition.
2. The practices of athletes and coaches are often ahead of the science.
The drive to get that edge on competitors sees athletes and coaches making decisions based on anecdotal evidence or from an “n of 1”. This is true whether athletes and coaches are trialling training regimes and dietary supplements, or experimenting with clandestine doping strategies, as highlighted by Prof John Hawley (@JohnAHawley) and Dr Dan Eichner, respectively. The challenge for researchers is how to conduct sufficiently rigorous research in applied settings, while managing the unique issues of feasibility and ethical conduct. Until these competing interests can be resolved, the empirical evidence that explains mechanisms and true effects will continue to lag behind practice.
3. Everything comes back to the individual.
Another reason why scientific evidence is lagging is that outliers are an inconvenient truth. Some presenters would despair that their findings are not as strong as they could be due to some “non-responders” in the sample. Given such individuality in responses, Dr Shona Halson, Prof Aaron Coutts (@AaronJCoutts), and Dr David Buttifant (@ButtersO2)were among several prominent researchers who stressed the importance of considering the individual and personalising strategies accordingly.
4. Data has to have a purpose.
In the Friday afternoon session focused on athlete monitoring, Prof Coutts opened his talk with the following quote: “If it’s measurable, measure it. If it’s controllable, control it. If it’s both, record it”. With technological advancements including GPS, accelerometers, and actigraphy, there is a wealth of data that can be recorded. The challenge, then, is how to best analyse and make use of this data, with the need to develop complex algorithms and use non-traditional statistical techniques. We should also be mindful of potential drawbacks of such data. Prof Tim Olds raised the concern of privacy issues with activity tracking and Dr Halson cautioned that conveying too much data may cause unnecessary anxiety or may be used as an excuse by athletes.
5. Don’t forget to ask “How do you feel?”.
Despite all this objective data, sometimes the richest information we can gain comes from simply talking to a client or athlete. Strong relationships built on trust and a supportive team environment are essential. On this note, it was a privilege to hear Dr David Martin and Olympic gold medallist Anna Meares (@AnnaMeares) sharing their insights into the workings of a high performance team.
Regardless of our varied backgrounds, I’m sure these themes will continue to ring true and are important for us all to keep in mind as we head back to our roles as researchers and practitioners.