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Olympics 2024: physicists are improving competitors' abilities

“Sport brings as much to science as science brings to sport”

Vincent Nougier, Professor at Grenoble Alpes University and former Head of the CNRS Sport & Activité Physique research group
On April 30th, 2024 |
5 min reading time
Vincent Nougier
Professor at Grenoble Alpes University and former Head of the CNRS Sport & Activité Physique research group
Key takeaways
  • Paradoxically, while performance in sport is constantly improving, physical activity worldwide is steadily declining.
  • Scientific studies on sport have a number of aims: optimising performance, identifying the health benefits of sport and understanding the physical characteristics of the earth.
  • Increasing physical activity worldwide is a major current challenge, since physical activity is essential for good health.
  • In some sports, optimisation can have such a significant impact that the rules need to evolve.
  • Optimising performance takes place at several levels: improving training, equipment and mental preparation.
  • The knowledge gained from studying sport is then applied to other sectors, such as space exploration and physiotherapy.

Sports per­for­mance seems to be improv­ing year after year, with records being bro­ken all the time. On the oth­er hand, world­wide phys­i­cal activ­i­ty is steadi­ly declin­ing. This decline is gen­er­al­ly linked to inno­va­tion and is present in almost every aspect of soci­ety. For exam­ple, farm­ing requires less and less phys­i­cal effort, and the sim­ple act of walk­ing or cycling is becom­ing rar­er. One study even points to a 10% drop in the phys­i­cal fit­ness of teenagers worldwide.

In sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies of sport, it is there­fore impor­tant to dis­tin­guish between phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and sport. “In sport, there is phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and sport­ing activ­i­ty,” explains Vin­cent Nougi­er, pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­sité Greno­ble Alpes. “So it’s not just high-lev­el sport, but sim­ple move­ment. Walk­ing, at its sim­plest, is already a form of phys­i­cal activity.”

The two are per­haps inex­tri­ca­bly linked, and the study of each is of dif­fer­ent sci­en­tif­ic inter­est. “The first area of inter­est, which is quite triv­ial, is of course in improv­ing the per­for­mance of sports­peo­ple,” con­tin­ues the pro­fes­sor. “A sec­ond area of inter­est is in the field of sport and health, where ques­tions revolve more around phys­i­cal activ­i­ty. The final area of inter­est, which has been some­what side­lined, is that sport remains a com­plex mod­el, bring­ing into play many of the phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of our world. Study­ing it also helps us to under­stand them bet­ter.” As research in the field of sport is not very well devel­oped at the CNRS, the Sport & Activ­i­ty Research Group was set up to address these three issues.

From sporting activity…

With the arrival of the Olympic and Par­a­lympic Games in Paris, research is nat­u­ral­ly focus­ing on opti­mis­ing the per­for­mance of ath­letes. There are many ways in which research can have an impact on per­for­mance. “The most obvi­ous is through tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion,” adds Vin­cent Nougi­er. “Such as improv­ing the mate­ri­als used in equip­ment to improve its weight, aero­dy­nam­ics and so on.” By under­stand­ing the phys­i­cal ele­ments involved in per­for­mance, it is pos­si­ble to opti­mise sports equip­ment. From run­ners’ shoes, which incor­po­rate new, high-per­for­mance tech­nol­o­gy every year, to ping-pong rack­ets and their spe­cial-pur­pose foam. These devel­op­ments can even be applied on an indi­vid­ual lev­el. “I often use the exam­ple of wind­surf­ing foils,” he explains. “Although their man­u­fac­ture is stan­dard­ised, their phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics are not exact­ly the same. The point is to bring togeth­er the athlete’s impres­sions regard­ing their pre­ferred foil with the foil’s objec­tive indi­ca­tors, which give it its phys­i­cal characteristics.”

In some sports, opti­mi­sa­tion can have such an impact that the rules have to evolve. Today, lawyers spe­cialise in sports reg­u­la­tions to deter­mine the lim­its that must not be exceed­ed, inevitably lead­ing com­peti­tors to want to get as close as pos­si­ble. “The recent exam­ple of François Gabart’s boat is a case in point,” notes Vin­cent Nougi­er. “The boat’s archi­tects thought it com­plied with the rules, but the Ultim class didn’t think so. This sto­ry went all the way to court, and end­ed up with the boat in ques­tion being mod­i­fied.” This opti­mi­sa­tion pushed to the lim­it is not lim­it­ed to the equip­ment used, it can also be found in the train­ing ses­sions. “Cer­tain train­ing meth­ods seem to be more effec­tive in cer­tain respects. Train­ing at alti­tude allows the body to adapt to phys­i­cal activ­i­ty in an envi­ron­ment with less oxy­gen. Even if this sub­ject is not yet ful­ly under­stood, research shows that it can have a num­ber of pos­i­tive impacts on performance.”

So train­ing is anoth­er way in which sci­ence can opti­mise per­for­mance. “Then there’s every­thing to do with the human being, the ath­lete,” says the pro­fes­sor. “A bet­ter under­stand­ing of phys­i­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms for phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion, but also a bet­ter under­stand­ing of men­tal prepa­ra­tion.” Because, although sport is appar­ent­ly based on the phys­i­cal aspect, and sci­ence is also pro­vid­ing bet­ter con­trol over poten­tial injuries to the ath­lete, the hid­den part of the ice­berg remains the men­tal aspect. Psy­chol­o­gy is there­fore becom­ing a key area of focus. “From there, many dif­fer­ent aspects emerge in the stud­ies,” he reports. “How do we deal with stress, pres­sure and even fail­ure? How does our brain coor­di­nate our move­ments? How can we make it more effi­cient, so that it learns faster and bet­ter?” All these ele­ments are still rel­a­tive­ly unknown today. While work­ing on it offers bet­ter phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion (avoid­ing injury and get­ting the best out of the ath­lete), bet­ter men­tal prepa­ra­tion enables them to per­form at the high­est lev­el. “Today, at the high­est lev­el of sport, it is the men­tal aspect that makes the dif­fer­ence,” he insists.

… to physical activity

“Aside from per­for­mance, a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the health ben­e­fits of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty is cru­cial these days,” adds Vin­cent Nougi­er. “All the more so in a soci­ety where the population’s lev­el of phys­i­cal fit­ness declines dras­ti­cal­ly every year1.” Among oth­er things, one study high­lights the fact that reg­u­lar phys­i­cal activ­i­ty reduces the risk of devel­op­ing a chron­ic dis­ease. In addi­tion to the known phys­i­cal ben­e­fits – improved phys­i­cal con­di­tion, bet­ter sleep, etc. – it also boosts the immune sys­tem and improves men­tal health.

“At the same time, there is an increase in the num­ber of chron­ic dis­eases,’ adds the pro­fes­sor. Whether it’s dia­betes, obe­si­ty, car­dio­vas­cu­lar or res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems, prac­tis­ing sport is impor­tant and we need to encour­age it.” The only prob­lem is that there are a lot of soci­etal costs involved in doing so. “We there­fore need to bet­ter under­stand how this “med­i­cine” [editor’s note: phys­i­cal activ­i­ty] can be admin­is­tered, and also bet­ter under­stand the aspects of sus­tain­able region­al devel­op­ment and education.”

In this respect, the study of sport is mov­ing away from an inter­est in tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions to focus on the levers that will increase par­tic­i­pa­tion. “Under­stand­ing the indi­vid­ual mech­a­nisms that dri­ve peo­ple to take part in phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, such as moti­va­tion, and opti­mis­ing region­al plan­ning are two angles of attack for encour­ag­ing peo­ple to do so,” says Vin­cent Nougier.

A two-way street

The last point is the one that often comes to mind at the end of a debate on the val­ue of sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies on sport. How­ev­er, a whole host of exam­ples come to mind upon fur­ther reflec­tion.  “There are cer­tain issues relat­ed to the prac­tice of sport, par­tic­u­lar­ly at the high­est lev­el,” says Vin­cent Nougi­er. “Even con­sid­er­ing the tra­jec­to­ry of a ball or javelin makes sci­en­tif­ic sport com­pli­cat­ed to man­age and explain.” Opti­mis­ing per­for­mance, as demon­strat­ed above, requires us to under­stand and tack­le these issues as effec­tive­ly as pos­si­ble. And, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, once the knowl­edge has been acquired, it can ben­e­fit oth­er sectors.

“When it comes to the ques­tion of ‘how are we going to get to Mars’, one of the issues to con­sid­er is the reduced phys­i­cal activ­i­ty of astro­nauts over an extend­ed peri­od of time,” he argues. “As humans can­not remain inac­tive, the knowl­edge we have devel­oped about the phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion of ath­letes is par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful.” Sim­i­lar­ly, mus­cle recov­ery tech­niques have been adapt­ed for patients under­go­ing reha­bil­i­ta­tion after injury or surgery[1]. Pros­the­ses and ergonom­ic work equip­ment are also opti­mised through sport. Tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions result­ing from com­pe­ti­tion, such as the light­weight mate­ri­als used in For­mu­la 1 cars, their aero­dy­nam­ics and inno­va­tions in dri­ver safe­ty, are just some exam­ples. Many of these inno­va­tions are spread­ing to oth­er sec­tors. For Vin­cent Nougi­er, it’s obvi­ous: “Sport brings as much to sci­ence as sci­ence brings to sport.” 

Pablo Andres
1Ander­son E, Durs­tine JL. Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, exer­cise, and chron­ic dis­eases: A brief review. Sports Med Health Sci. 2019 Sep 10;1(1):3–10. doi: 10.1016/j.smhs.2019.08.006. PMID: 35782456; PMCID: PMC9219321.

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