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The evolution of sports science

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29 Sep 2021
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Sports science is synonymous with cycling, and each race win, product release or training technique will have been influenced by some level of research and analysis in the core scientific pillars of chemistry, physics and biology. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Go back 30 years and the riders and coaches of the professional peloton were only just getting to grips with real-time power output. Go back another 30 years and training and racing was based around the rudimentary equation of more training miles = more chance of winning.

Here, we’ll take you on a journey through the evolution of sports science within cycling, and what the future holds for the average rider.

1930s-‘50s

While sports science was still a long way from being an accepted (and well-funded) form of research, that didn’t stop athletes and coaches trying out different training techniques to find a physiological edge.

Although it wouldn’t be adopted by cyclists until the 1960s, the Swedish method of ‘fartlek’ – an early, less-rigid precursor to interval training – was used by distance runners to boost their performance. By mixing jogging with short, sharp bursts of sprinting, athletes were able to train both their aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, which would become beneficial during the unpredictable cut-and-thrust nature of running races.

1960s

The swinging sixties was also the decade that cyclists cottoned on to interval training. The method that had helped Roger Bannister break the four-minute mile on the athletics track in 1954 was adopted by professionals and amateurs alike, but it was still rather primitive when compared to modern techniques – holding a set speed or sprinting between lamp posts and road furniture rather than a percentage of your FTP.

Cyclists started experimenting with interval sessions instead of combining long training miles with jammed racing schedules, but a lack of measuring techniques meant it remained something of an art rather than a science. For club cyclists, a chain gang was the ideal form of interval training – putting in a hard stint on the front of the line before being able to recover in a more aerodynamically sheltered position at the rear.

1970s

The Cold War might not seem like an obvious starting point for a revolution in sports science, but the conflict would help politicise the sporting arena just a decade on from the Cuban Missile Crisis. State sponsorship of sport in the Eastern bloc and an explosion of interest in aerobics towards the end of the decade in the West led to serious investment in sports physiology departments for the first time.

One of the biggest discoveries in cycling was the identification of the anaerobic threshold by Francesco Conconi in 1979. The Italian professor linked heart rate and performance to the level of lactate in an athlete’s blood, and at which point that lactate would start to increase in the bloodstream exponentially, causing fatigue.

1980s

It was all very well for cyclists to know that they had such a thing as an anaerobic threshold, but without real-time data, that information was useless outside of a lab setting. Enter the portable heart rate monitor – a technological breakthrough that revolutionised training and enabled coaches to quantify training intensities by heart rate.

Although nowhere near as sophisticated as the heart rate monitors that come in today’s basic smartwatches or fitness bands (and much more expensive), this new technology enabled sports scientists to gather heart rate data outside of a lab setting, paving the way for even more research possibilities.

1990s

If the 1980s were the decade dominated by heart rate, then the ‘90s were all about power and would change training forever. Although commercially available since 1989, it wasn’t until the ‘90s that power meters became financially viable training tools for all, and not just the elite.

Coaches started to see their full potential too. Not only did they allow users to measure their training much more accurately than relying solely on heart rate, but they also measured the data that showed how a training load would impact fitness – preventing overtraining, unnecessary miles and wasted time. No longer was training an art – research, coaching and technology had turned it into a science.

2000s-present day

A lot of commentators focus on the marginal gains of cycling technology – whether that’s improved aerodynamics of kit that help to shave seconds off of a Grand Tour stage, or lubricants that boost the efficiency of drivetrains. But all of these advances are pointless unless the rider is in their best possible form.

Sports science has driven a holistic approach to training. Analysts now determine how each athlete trains, eats, sleeps and, in the case of sports psychology, thinks. Each element can be modified and tweaked to ensure that the rider is prepared for every training session and race, reducing the risk of injuries and fatigue and guaranteeing that they arrive at the start line in the best form possible.

What does the future hold?

While there’s a lot of hype around biosensor monitors and real-time glucose tracking, the reality is that this is still a long way off from being an accessible (or even necessary) training tool for the average cyclist who wants to ride their bike to get in shape or train for an event.

Instead, the real change we’ll see is the rise of insightful, app-based training. All of the data collected through power meters, heart rate monitors and head units on each training ride is pointless unless it helps influence future training sessions.

Which is where the new Wahoo SYSTM training app comes in. Created by the Wahoo sports scientists and coaches responsible for numerous Grand Tour wins and Olympic gold medals, SYSTM provides that holistic approach to training that has previously been the preserve of the professional peloton.

Sports science has helped athletes of all levels make incremental performance and fitness gains that have been the difference between winning and losing the race or reaching a set goal. Now it’s time to let it transform your training too.

• To find out more about how Wahoo SYSTM can boost your training, try it free for 14 days