In the sports world of marginal gains, athletes, coaches and support staff are working tirelessly to gain a performance edge at this year’s Olympic Games. With no stone left unturned viewing the presence of injury and illness as ‘performance threats’ has led to a novel approach being introduced by researchers at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) and UK Sport.
Although the very nature of illness and injury means they cannot be fully ruled out in sport coming into its fourth year the Injury & Illness Performance Project (IIPP) has been looking at how best to reduce the risks which could impact upon athlete performance on the international stage.
At the Beijing Games the International Olympic Committee recorded multisport injury information for the first time, with the GB squad proving to be one of the best prepared teams at the Games with a lower injury rate than other teams on average. Following the Beijing Games the UK Sport Research & Innovation Team along with the EIS began the country’s first national multisport injury and illness epidemiological study of its kind.
Over the past three and a half years detailed information around the occurrence of injury and illness in athletes, and their exposure to risk in training and competition, have been systematically recorded by the sports national governing body medical and coaching staff, and collated and analysed within the Injury/Illness Performance Project (IIPP).
“After years of hard work and commitment from athletes, picking up an injury or illness which could affect their performance when it matters most is a cruel fate in sport” says EIS Director of Medical Services, Dr Rod Jaques.
“It is essential to understand illness and injury incidence before any novel treatments can be implemented through the support teams working in sport.
“What we have seen from the IIPP programme is that sports have gained a depth of understanding around injury and illness and have been able to implement medical, coaching and strength and conditioning changes to improve illness and injury incidence” he adds.
The project has shown that 67% of interruptions to training for British athletes from Olympic sports have been due to injury, whilst 33% have been related to illness over the past 3 years.
Injury data has shown that 43% of athletes will get at least one injury per season, some suffering multiple injuries, with each injury causing on average 17 days lost to training and 1 competition to be missed. The rate (incidence) and severity of injury occurring during training are lower than during competition. Overall, injuries to the knee, shoulder, hip and lumbar spine pose the greatest risk, causing the greatest burden to athletes in terms of total days lost.
Illness data has shown that 35% of athletes will get at least one illness per season, with each illness resulting in 7 days of training lost. Respiratory illness is most common, with upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) accounting for 44% of all illness.
Strategies are being actively sought to impact on the injuries and illnesses affecting GB athletes. Often this is simple advice or recommendations which practitioners can feed into the coaching team as well as athletes as EIS Sports Physician Dr Kate Strachan explains.
“The project is a very powerful tool when you can turn to a sport and say you have lost “x” amount of days through either illness or injury in this last season. They can have the best kit, training environments etc in the world but if there is significant time lost – it is equally as important.
“In terms of the interventions – it has been about basics. With infection we have tried to reduce the spread with simple hygiene measures and raising awareness as to athlete’s vulnerability to infection after they train. Giving them the stats on time loss from illness is more powerful than anything I can say.”
EIS Sports Physician Dr Paul Jackson, who works with Modern Pentathlon adds: “The data on the relationship between certain lower limb injuries and training load has allowed us to review the injury prevention drills and talk to the coaches about adequate recovery and the intervals between heavy loading of the legs. For some athletes in Modern Pentathlon this means not running and fencing on the same day.”
Hence, whilst traditionally seen as a negative, the occurrence of injury and illness is being used as a positive, with detailed data recording helping to provide valuable information and lessons to inform prevention and risk reduction initiatives. Giving GB athletes the best possible preparation time for when they come to stand on the start line in London 2012.
There are now eleven sports involved with the IIPP. With plans to continue and grow the project leading into the Rio 2016 Games and beyond additional research support has been added to the EIS research team led by Dr Debbie Palmer-Green working at the University of Nottingham.
Dr Palmer-Green is also working with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on their injury and illness surveillance study during the London 2012 Olympics.