Always aiming for higher, faster, further, stronger

Sleep, injuries, exercise, diet, running shoes – nothing is off-limits when it comes to studying ways to get the most out of the human body.

By Jennifer Allford
August 2016

 

Since 1981, researchers at the University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) within the Faculty of Kinesiology have explored countless nuances and complexities behind achievement, mobility and longevity. Their studies cover a vast array of fields, including anatomy, biology, biomechanics, motor control, physiology and psychology, leaving no stone unturned in the search for knowledge about human performance.

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Focus on performance

When she was a kid, Kim Scott dreamed of being the world’s top figure skater and she spent every minute she could on the ice. “I skated as much as I could possibly skate,” says the Calgary mother of three. “I wanted to be the best figure skater ever, and I used to dream about landing jumps. I loved it and it was very important to me to be the best that I could.”

Eventually she traded in her figure skates for hockey skates. Over the years, she played baseball, took up running, road biking, cross-country skiing and did a half Ironman triathlon. As her kids started graduating high school a few years ago, she took up yoga, “so that I could still run.”

And while she doesn’t dream of landing jumps anymore (but she does have “nightmares” of putting on her old skating costumes), keeping her performance up and injuries down is crucial for her quality of life.

In addition to helping elite athletes elevate their games, the research performed at HPL allows people like Kim Scott to maintain their activity levels way of life.

“The whole thing is to train as hard as you can while trying to find that balance . . . "

Knowing how to maximize her body’s performance is also paramount to swimmer Fiona Doyle, who just graduated from UCalgary with a kinesiology degree in pedagogy and coaching. The university’s 2013 Female Athlete of the Year spends 50 hours a week training to compete in the 100-metre breaststroke in this summer’s Olympics. She’s in the pool twice a day, hits the weight room four hours a week, does dryland training and runs.

“The whole thing is to train as hard as you can while trying to find that balance between staying healthy and fit enough to keep going,” says Doyle. “Everything that we do is always geared toward trying to get that little bit more out of your body.”

The HPL has been working toward the same goal for 35 years. Researchers study how athletes – whether they run before work or compete at the highest level – can maximize their performance.

“When you talk about performance, we have two avenues you can go – one is your body, the other one is the equipment,” says researcher Benno Nigg, who founded the HPL in 1981. Since then, he and his colleagues have studied both bodies and gear, worked with giants in the sports equipment industry, busted myths and created an enormous body of knowledge about human athletic performance.

Related: 5 things to keep in mind for peak performance

You don't have to be an elite athlete to benefit from the work our researchers do in the University of Calgary's Human Performance Laboratory. Take your game to the next level with "12 tips to improve athletic performance – from the experts."

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It’s your muscles that count, not their marketing  

Nigg has seen pretty much every technology ever invented for running shoes and put many of them through their paces at the HPL. “New running shoes and sport shoes are very much a marketing tool and what people write may or may not be true,” says Nigg. “Sometimes there are some new functional things with new shoes but it’s very rare.”

So forget the bells and whistles. The best running or sport shoe you can buy is the one that’s the most comfortable. That’s it. It’s that simple. “Performance is better when the shoe is comfortable compared to when it is not comfortable,” says Nigg. “And secondly there are fewer injuries when the shoe is comfortable compared to when it is not comfortable.”

“Sometimes there are some new functional things with new shoes but it’s very rare.”

This simple advice may be news to the hordes of runners who have been told they need to buy shoes with special supports to correct their pronation – the foot rolling inward with each step. “You’d go to the store and they’d say ‘You pronate,’” says Nigg. “They would claim that about 70 per cent of people are pronators and that’s not true at all. Scientists have measured that and only about one per cent of the running population are ‘excessive’ pronators. The rest are ‘normal’ pronators.”

Nigg has also shed light on the value – or lack thereof – of using custom or off-the-shelf orthotics in your running shoes. His conclusion: while the insoles in your shoes can be a little helpful in the short term, they are not a long-term solution. “One of the problems is the insoles often take away the need for the muscles around the ankle to work and that is not good for a) performance and b) injuries,” says Nigg.  “We have a lot of data on this – train the muscles of your ankle joint and if they are very strong, most problems that runners have are gone anyway.”

Things to remember:

  • Beware the marketing around running and sport shoes.
  • Buy comfortable running and sports shoes.
  • Use orthotics only as a short-term measure.
  • Exercise the muscles crossing your ankle joints.

 

Related: 4 things to remember about running shoes

 

This is your brain on fatigue

When it comes to fatigue after extreme exercise such as endurance races, Guillaume Millet, a professor in the HPL, has found that our brains get tired, and that women’s muscles may resist fatigue better than men’s.

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As part of his work researching the causes of fatigue, Millet has studied ultramarathons, races that are longer than the usual 42 km marathon, and found that women experience a lower level of fatigue in the calves and quadriceps, which may help explain why females appear to close the gap on male runners, potentially outperforming them in extreme duration running races.

Regardless of gender, people experience significant fatigue after extreme exercise. And Millet found that the central nervous system is more fatigued than the muscles. 

“The central nervous system is more impacted by the prolonged or ultra-endurance exercises than the muscles themselves,” he says. “One way to interpret that is maybe this is a way to protect the body against further damage.”

That’s because when your central nervous system is tired, it can’t tell your muscles to contract to their maximum. “If we decrease the ability to contract muscles, it means we reduce our ability to hurt ourselves,” says Millet. “You are not able to push as much as if the brain was working normally so that the muscles, the joints and the body in general is spared. This is only a possible interpretation yet we consistently observe central fatigue after ultramarathons.”

Unexpectedly, Millet also found that ultramarathons aren't necessarily limited to elite athletes. For instance, one of his male subjects ran 160 km, up and down 9,000 metres, in 40 hours, with minimal training. “He trained two to three times a week for an hour,” says Millet. “That was all the training he did and he was able to finish the race without injury. This is obviously not recommended but it shows there is no need to train 15-20 hours a week to run ultramarathons. Everybody can do it.”

Things to remember:

  • Central fatigue may be particularly important in endurance sports because when your brain gets tired it will affect your performance. This central fatigue may be related to the feedback from muscles, tendons and joints.
  • Sleep deprivation, mental fatigue, pain-killers, psychostimulants and cognitive or nutritional strategies may affect ultra-running performance. Any method that hides the natural signal of fatigue is dangerous for the runners’ health and may even threaten their lives.
  • Men experience more fatigue than do women in ultramarathons, which may help explain why women do well in extremely long-duration running races.
  • While the mechanisms are different compared to ultra-endurance, the changes within the motor component of the central nervous system may also explain why some people feel chronically fatigued in diseases such as cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome.

 

It’s not only our muscles that get tired during intense exercise; our brains also experience fatigue. Fatigue is also a common and often debilitating symptom in many diseases.  Join researcher Guillaume Millet in this webinar as he shares key insights from his studies on both exercise-related and chronic fatigue. Learn about the factors that contribute to fatigue and how strategies like regular exercise can actually help alleviate it.

Watch webinar

Restoring symmetry after ACL injuries

Anyone who’s spent a few days on the slopes knows that skiing can be hard on the knees. Elite ski racers commonly suffer anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. Matt Jordan, a former trainer of Olympic skiers and current PhD candidate at the Human Performance Lab, has found that ski racers who have had an ACL injury often favour the leg that wasn’t injured – and that may lead to more injuries. 

“The main conclusion is despite coming back from an ACL injury and despite being back on snow and skiing, athletes who have a knee injury continue to present with elevated levels of functional asymmetry,” he says. “The skiers who have the highest levels seem to be the ones that have the most difficulty making a comeback.” 

In the long run, Jordan aims to determine how to prevent an ACL injury on the slopes. But in the meantime, his work indicates how a skier can come back after a knee injury. “By training for and restoring symmetry, we might be able to help somebody come back after an ACL injury and return to a high level of function,” he says. “We want to help the person to get leg strength and power restored in the limb that had the surgery.”

Things to remember:

  • ACL injuries are common in elite skiers.
  • Asymmetry after an ACL injury may lead to further injuries.
  • Skiers with lower levels of asymmetry in their legs appear to make more successful comebacks.
  • Future research will explore single-leg exercises and other types of physical training that may help rebuild muscle strength, power and coordination in the battered limb.

 

Exercise for healthy aging

As you get older, it’s even more important to exercise because if you’re fit, you can live independently for longer. “As we age and our fitness declines we can fall into a vicious cycle where we become less fit and less independent,” says Juan Murias, professor in UCalgary’s Human Performance Lab. “Appropriate and effective exercise prescription is essential to prolong independent lifestyle in the elderly.”

Murias is researching the “right dose” of exercise for older adults in order to maintain cardiovascular function – a healthy heart, arteries and arterioles that can deliver oxygen and nutrients to body.  Routine daily activity isn’t enough to maintain healthy cardiovascular function. Older adults need exercise that challenges the cardiovascular system.

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In 12-week training programs, Murias had older adults perform continuous vigorous (70% VO2max —the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use in in one minute) endurance exercise for 45 minutes, three times a week. He found they could improve their cardiovascular fitness by up to 30 per cent. In another study, he found significant improvement in people (older and younger) with even less time on the bicycle.

"Older people are very responsive to exercise training . . . "

“Older untrained individuals can improve their vascular function after only three exercise training sessions,” he says.  “The results indicated a great reduction in risk for loss of independence and that older people are very responsive to exercise training, and highlighted that even previously untrained healthy seniors can benefit from a short-term training intervention.”

Things to remember:

  • While we don’t know the exact “right dose “of exercise yet, we do know that demanding intensity exercise will maximize results.
  • Go hard. You can have very effective training sessions in as little as 20 minutes but you have to be willing to put some intensity into it.
  • Endurance exercise training is a tremendously powerful tool to improve cardiovascular health and function.
  • Exercise yields positive health results at any time in your life. It’s never too late, or early, to start.

 

You are what you eat

They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But if you’re training hard, the food you eat right after you work out is what’s crucial, says Kelly Anne Erdman, a sports dietician who received her Masters in Science from the Faculty of Kinesiology in 2004. “The most important aspect of nutrition is what an athlete consumes in their immediate recovery, within two hours of exhaustive training” says Erdman, an Olympian in cycling who works with Olympic and professional athletes. “This is the time when our most important training adaptations occur.” Those adaptations include restoring energy, repairing and building muscle with protein, repairing damaged cells with antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, rehydration and restoring electrolytes.

Studies into the eating habits of Canada’s elite athletes found they get more than enough vitamins and minerals from their food but needed dietary supplements to get enough carbohydrate and overall calories. “You would never want one of your athletes to take a supplement and it to be contaminated with something that’s going to make them have a positive test and see them disqualified from their event,” says Raylene Reimer, professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology. “Dietary supplement use is common practice but there are still questions about safety, effectiveness and contamination with banned substances.”

Finally, don’t forget to rest

Whether you’ve just bought your first pair of running shoes or are training to swim in the Olympics, there is much evidence-based research to help you boost your performance. Training and nutrition advice will vary, but one common aspect for athletes of all levels is good old-fashioned sleep.

“I go back to bed after the morning workout and that’s not because we’re lazy or love our beds more,” says Olympic swimmer Fiona Doyle. “It’s because we need to recover and the best form of recovery is sleep.”

Kim Scott too believes in proper rest for her body so she can continue to run, do yoga and cycle to work every day. “It’s about balance,” she says. “I try to do something active every day. It’s very, very important for me mentally and physically.”

Related: Training vs. genetics

About our experts

Benno Nigg is a professor emeritus with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology and founder of the University’s Human Performance Laboratory. His research concentrates on human locomotion with emphasis on mobility and longevity and their application to movement-related products such as orthoses, shoe insoles, sport shoes, sport surfaces and sport equipment. A selection of Benno’s academic publications can be found here.
Guillaume Millet is a professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology. He also heads the Neuromuscular Fatigue Lab within the Faculty’s Human Performance Laboratory. His research interests lie in the areas of exercise physiology, neuromuscular function and fatigue. Find a list of his academic papers here.
Juan Murias is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Through his research, Juan seeks to determine the most effective exercise training programs for promoting health and improving athletic performance in the elderly. Find a complete list of Juan’s research papers here.
Raylene Reimer has a joint appointment as professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cumming School of Medicine. Her research focuses on the role of diet in regulating energy intake and gut microbiota in the context of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Find a full list of her academic papers here.​
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