What is Sports Physiology?

This aspect of Performance Science is concerned with the assessment of how the body responds to single or repeated bouts of exercise. The scientific principles of exercise physiology are applied through a range of physiological interventions or assessments, which facilitate the profiling and monitoring of specific parameters relevant to optimise sports performance. This might involve analysis of hydration status, profiling of changes in blood markers, and/or evaluation of changes in fitness during graded exercise tests. For example, a high level of aerobic capacity (having a good engine) and exercise economy (being able to use fuel sources efficiently) is a prerequisite for endurance performance. Once physiological determinants of performance such as these are identified, benchmarking can be used to compare athletes against international competitors or performance standards. This process enables the physiologist and coach to predict potential performance capability, i.e. in athletics lactate profile tests can be used to estimate running times in the 10k or marathon. In most sports, the majority of assessments are conducted in the training or competition environment of the sport, i.e. at the track, pool or playing field.  However, in some endurance sports such as cycling, rowing and triathlon, the athletes may visit the sport science laboratory to perform assessments or training sessions on a range of sport specific exercise ergometers.


There are a number of ways in which athletes can benefit from embracing sports physiology. For example, one of the primary concerns of coaches is to keep their athletes healthy, injury free and physically fit enough to train. Physiological profiling can be effectively used to provide an indication of general health status, through analysis of red and white blood cell results, and iron and vitamin D levels. In some cases where abnormal results are found, the doctor and Performance Nutritionist may recommend a dietary modification and / or prescribe a supplement trial. This intervention can often lead to improving health status, quality of training and subsequent performance adaptations.

Regular physiological assessments enable fitness to be determined in a controlled environment. For endurance sports such as cycling and triathlon, this allows factors limiting to performance to be evaluated and accurate training intensities to be pinpointed.  This can assist the coach with prescribing training programmes tailored to the specific performance needs of that athlete. From these tests exercise economy or aerobic power may be identified as the limiting factor to current performance and subsequent training is planned to promote adaptations that will enhance this current physiological limitation. Follow-up evaluations or periodic training snap shots can then be used to monitor the progressions in fitness and resulting performance improvements.

International competition requires athletes to travel across multiple time zones, which often results in travel fatigue and jet lag. In addition they can be exposed to environmental factors such as altitude, heat and humidity that can directly impair performance.  It is therefore important that prior to travel, a suitable preparation strategy is devised and implemented to minimise the potential disruption in performance from symptoms of travel fatigue and jet lag and to facilitate acclimation to the new environment. This can be achieved through development of a preparation programme that progressively exposes the athlete to the environmental factors that they are going to experience during competition. This may involve training in the environmental chamber or sleeping in an altitude tent. Observation of physiological parameters including sweat rate, heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen saturation in the blood, can be used to demonstrate acclimation to the new climatic environment and even identify those people who respond positively to altitude training.

Endurance Sport -Triathlon

In endurance sports such as triathlon, athletes may perform multiple exercise or training sessions in one day. For example a triathlete may swim an aerobic conditioning set in the pool at 6.00am, perform a combined power and threshold session on the bike later that morning at 11.30am, quickly followed by a tempo run on the treadmill at 1.00pm, before finishing with a strength session in the gym at 2.30pm. These training sessions are regularly monitored to ensure that the athlete is swimming within the desired time using the correct stroke-rate, cycling at the optimal heart rate and power and running at the correct speed to illicit the desired physiological adaptations. The responses to training can be compared using blood lactate analysis and this information enables minor adjustments to the overall schedule to be made to ensure that the athlete remains on track. This regular interaction between the physiologist and athlete helps to facilitate the coaching process by providing information on which informed decisions can be made. Regular monitoring of training also provides valuable comparison data that can be used when observing athlete responses and acclimation to warm-weather and altitude training environments. In these camps, the athletes are required to complete daily training diaries, which provide information relating to changes in body mass, hydration status, sleep quality, appetite, muscle soreness and mood state. These logs can be used to monitor how each athlete is tolerating the training load and managing their individual recovery programme.

Team Sports

In team sports such as Gaelic football, rugby and soccer, physiological interventions can be used to evaluate the specific demands of games. For example, players now often wear portable heart rate monitors and GPS tracking devices during games. This information is used to tailor training, often replicating position specific requirements. The same devices can be used to evaluate player work-rate or application during the subsequent training sessions. Indeed innovations in real time technology now enable the physiologist to directly liaise with coaching staff during training to modify technical drills or conditioning sets to maximise the time spent on the training field.