Job title Sports physiologist
Employer English Institute of Sport
“There’s huge potential to take British sport to greater heights”
Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s most successful sports physiologists. He’s worked with the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. Want to follow in his footsteps?
You have been Director of Science and Technical Development at the English Institute of Sport, and helped oversee the rise of Team GB. How did the organisation achieve that?
Team GB didn’t used to do so well [at the Olympic Games]. In 1996, at Atlanta, we finished 36th in the medals’ table, just above Armenia. Since then, we’ve benefitted from funding by the lottery and the exchequer, and that helped enabled athletes to train full-time, and for the coaches and the teams behind the scenes to make a living helping them. This saw an enhanced appliance of sports science and medicine. Then, when we were awarded the Olympic games in 2005, there was a widespread galvanization of efforts. At that time, I was one of ten sports physiologists who were all pioneers. Now, there are more than 500 in the English Institute of Sport system alone, plus a further 3,000 or 4,000 at other sports clubs. Sports science is growing – and maturing – quickly.
How have we been able to compete with bigger nations?
You’re right; we don’t have the population of, say, America or China, but in the last five Olympiads we have continued to better our medals totals. We were fourth in Beijing, third in London and second in Rio. To do that, we’ve simply focused on what it takes to win.
Is sports science another way of finding ‘marginal gains’?
Marginal gains have become a bit of a thing in recent years, but what does it mean? I think marginal gains is really ‘leaving no stone unturned’. Our approach is to set our sights very high and establish goals. For example, for a long jumper, it could be to increase their distance by 20cm. To do that, you have to break down the components of a long jump. They have to have a quick run-up, for example, then transfer that speed to the jump. They then need to jump as close to the line as possible and fly through the air in the most effective way. There are physiological and nutritional elements involved with each of these components, so what we do is create a model of performance and apply what we feel is the appropriate training and rest. We might make a series of small changes but which all add up. Essentially, we try new things, observe them and measure their effectiveness.
What makes a champion?
Are we talking sporting champions, or champions in everyday life? We get goosebumps watching people run around in circles on a track but it’s not the actual event, it’s the endeavour of that person to achieve that goal. That can translate to all of us. We can all set ambitious goals that have meaning.
Sports science is a growing industry, is it a good time to get involved?
It is, although you have to consider at the moment that there are 15,000 students currently undertaking sports science degrees, and there are only about 4,000-5,000 jobs. That said, the opportunities within sports science are huge, and there’s huge potential to take British sport to greater heights.
What is it like to work with champions of sport?
I have been very fortunate. My role has always been to analyse how athletes train and perform, and what can influence those two things. I’ve worked with more than 1,000 athletes, of which 200 have won medals or experienced Olympic success. And recently, following a decision to award Kelly Sotherton a retrospective gold medal for the 4 x 400 in 2008, I can now also call myself an Olympic-winning coach, too!
With sports science so competitive, how would someone stand out?
A sports science degree will teach you to know stuff, but it won’t tell you how to use that stuff, or enable you to learn from the experiences of using it. So, I would look for someone who has made effective use of what they’ve learned in the real world. Get out there and acquire experience by helping someone be better. I don’t know of any peers who entered the industry with just a qualification. They all did something more. They were industrious. I certainly wasn’t equipped when I started out. Someone studying photography will go out and practise using their camera. That behaviour will define them. It’s the same for a budding sports scientist. Acquire experience and learn from it. Step out beyond the books to get experience, and continue to reflect and maximize your adaptations.
“How to Support a Champion: The Art of Applying Science to the Elite Athlete, is available on amazon.co.uk”