Researcher in the Spotlight March 2016


Hans-Christer Holmberg is Professor of Sport Science at the Department of Health Sciences, Mid Sweden University, Sweden. He is also director for Research and Development at the Swedish Olympic Committee and the Swedish Winter Sports Research Centre. His research has mainly focused on cross-country and alpine skiing.

Hans-Christer will give a plenary lecture at our BBEP meeting, 6-8 March 2016 in Nottingham, UK on Monday 7 March from 18.00 GMT. You can watch the live steam here.
Physiological limits to human performance: insight from the elite cross-country skier

What is your research about?

My research mainly focuses on cross-country and alpine skiing, and uses an integrative physiological and biomechanical approach. However, we also study other sports (such as cycling, running, swimming and rowing) and more general topics such as the effects of different types of endurance training and environmental factors (hyperoxia/hypoxia) on performance. Because of my position on the Swedish Olympic Committee, I am able to coordinate sport scientists from a wide range of disciplines and direct their expertise to helping elite athletes.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

I have always been interested in sport and competed in several sports myself. My educational background and work experience, before I started my research, was working with elite athletes as a chiropractor and as a coach for world-class endurance athletes (in cross-country skiing and kayaking). It was through this that I met Professor Bengt Saltin. After many hours of interesting discussions, he said to me, “HC, you ask so many interesting questions – you should be a sports science researcher”. Prof. Saltin’s knowledge and enthusiasm inspired me to change course and, after studying at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, I got my Ph.D. in Medical Science from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Overall, my great personal interest in sports has stimulated numerous ideas that we have applied to help athletes and enhance performance.

Why is your work important?

My main aim has been to contribute to the development of cross-country skiing as a sport. In parallel, I have also exploited cross-country skiing as a unique experimental model that allows insights about exercise physiology and locomotion/kinesiology. Cross-country skiing uniquely has numerous techniques and sub-techniques (classic vs. skating, diagonal stride vs. double poling etc.) that differentially involve the upper and lower-body, and all at or above the extremes of our aerobic capacities. Our scientific work involves extensive international collaboration and I am proud that the Swedish Winter Sports Research Centre has become a hub, not only for researchers interested in winter and snow sports, but also for physiologists who study basic mechanisms using cross-country skiing as a model system.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Absolutely. Our work has made significant contributions to developing the sport and had an impact on general practice/training, as well as helping to improve performance. Cross-country skiing is a popular recreational sport in many parts of the world and some of our research has also raised public awareness of the many positive training adaptations and health effects of this type of exercise. Scientifically, our studies have hopefully also contributed to enhancing the general understanding of exercise physiology. Additionally, our approach of combining physiological and biomechanical measurements has inspired other sport scientists to perform integrated multidisciplinary studies.

What does a typical day involve?

I almost always begin my day with some exercise, which varies with the seasons. For example, this morning I cross-country skied for 90 minutes on trails that lead from my home. In the summer, I enjoy running on the special soil called muskeg that we have in Sweden.

My work involves many different things. As a researcher, I write scientific articles, meet with other researchers and students, supervise Ph.D. and postdoctoral students, organize projects, analyse data, apply for grants, visit collaborating international research groups and make presentations at conferences.

As a Director for R&D at the Swedish Olympic Committee, I meet with coaches and athletes, initiate and lead projects, identify trends and topics of interest for coaches/athletes that could possibly impact performance; supervise support staff and participate in training camps and events/competitions. I am also involved in planning for upcoming Olympics (Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018) and meetings with the Olympic organizations from other nations around the world.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I enjoy trying to find solutions and transferring knowledge to athletes, coaches and the research community. As an entrepreneur, I love developing environments and coaching people, initiating and finalizing a range of projects and having an impact on sport performance. My job allows a high level of flexibility and the great variety of tasks gives me energy. I am never bored, there are so many challenges.

What do enjoy the least?

Meaningless meetings.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

Well, I like going out in the mountains around where I live in Åre to blow my birch trumpet (näverlur) and I’m very interested in wine, especially from the European regions around the 45th parallel north. 

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Don’t think too much about your goals. Instead, enjoy your work and the results will come.

See challenges as something positive and make the most of them.

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