The Opposite of Doping
Wired News
By Kristen Philipkoski |
02:00 AM Feb, 16, 2006

While everyone knows doping in sports is a big no-no, the next best way to improve performance might be to concentrate on chemicals coming out of athletes, rather than going in.

By measuring hormone and other chemical levels before, during and after tough workouts, trainers can precisely tailor an athlete's regimen. For example, creatin kinase levels are high following muscle wear and tear. If levels are high following, say, a rugby match, an athlete might want to train lightly the following week to avoid injury. If levels are low, the coach can push slackers harder.

A blood sample obtained by a pinprick is necessary to test chemicals related to athletic performance. But scientists at HortResearch in New Zealand are developing a non-invasive and painless method. Some trainers are already using Hort's technology by measuring testosterone, cortisol and creatin kinase.

"We can have an insight inside someone's body as to what's going on, instead of making assumptions," said David Slyfield, the fitness coach for Emirates Team New Zealand, which will compete for the America's Cup in 2007.

Competitive sailing requires upper body muscle mass and strength for grinding sails quickly. During training, the New Zealand team sails six days a week, lifts weights four days a week in addition to cardiovascular work like running.

During preparation for the 2003 America's Cup, Slyfield tested his team once before workout, four times during and once after. Some results were predictable. For example, athletes who didn't eat a breakfast with lots of protein didn't perform as well as those who ate dairy or a supplement, and the data they recorded backed that up.

"(The athletes) could graphically see that evidence and change their behavior," Slyfield said.

Other results were surprising. One team member in particular couldn't seem to increase his strength despite tough workouts. Typically, workouts begin with the hardest exercises, because athletes tend to be most anabolic, or able to build muscle mass, when they're rested. But Slyfield found that this athlete's hormones got a sluggish start, making him anabolic later in the workout. So he benefited more from training that became harder as it progressed.

"That's something that I would have never have guessed as a trainer without this technology," Slyfield said.

The ultimate goal is to create a portable, non-invasive, ultrasound testing device that can test athletes in real time. HortResearch plans to create a startup company devoted to integrating its technology with a device Sontra Medical developed to test glucose levels in diabetics. They expect an FDA-approved model will be available in about three years.

"Everyone in (the) U.S. knows millions of dollars are spent on sports every year," said Beth Stark, a business development leader at HortResearch. "And with the amount of money invested into a player's salary, you of course want to use any technology you can to optimized their performance."

In the meantime, athletes can tailor their training based on lab tests that HortResearch turns around in a couple days.

The company is better known for its agricultural efforts, including developing new varieties of apples and kiwi. HortResearch originally developed the sports technology because scientists wanted to study how stress affected sheep meat. To find out, they needed a non-invasive method so they could measure stress hormones without actually stressing the sheep in the process. HortResearch scientist Christian Cook, who came up with the idea, was also an athlete. He reckoned the technology could also be useful for optimizing human performance.

Not much more is known yet about how trainers of elite athletes are using the technology. Some rugby teams and other athletes are using the technology stealthily, hoping to gain a competitive edge without competitors knowing how, Stark said.

"We've worked with professional rugby teams using this technology in New Zealand and Australia, but that's about all I can say," Stark said.