Category Archives: Member Spotlight

Creating Champions: Road to the Olympics

By Kim Murray, Great Britain skeleton athlete, @KimMurray88

After years as a physiologist in elite sports, I thought I was pretty familiar with the life of an athlete. Then I became one myself: suddenly there was a team of support staff there to help me; numbers were being crunched and I wasn’t the one making the spreadsheet, but a data point on it. In the four years since I switched sides from exercise physiologist to full-time athlete in skeleton, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the mental and physical challenges that drive an ever better performance.

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I now train full-time in Bath, alongside around twenty other British skeleton athletes. We have a team of coaches, sport science staff and medical support staff working alongside us to produce champions. On a day to day basis I work with a coach, strength and conditioning coach and physiotherapist. However, there is much more going on behind the scenes in terms of planning and data management as well as having access to nutrition, performance lifestyle and psychological support.

The life of an athlete is not quite what I expected. Day to day can be a grind; you must find something more within yourself when you’re tired to complete a session or pick up a new technique. You’re also constantly surrounded by super humans so although to the outside you seem physically unbelievable there is always a lot of internal competition and I can be very hard on myself. What has exceeded my expectations however, is what I have been able to achieve and experience, and the friends I have made in the short time I have been part of the team. You travel for half the year; visiting the most beautiful parts of the winter world, throwing yourself off the top of tracks, hitting 120 plus km/h (74 mph) and calling it work. Some days I just simply cannot believe this is my life.

 

The physiologist in the athlete

Having worked with athletes, I try to conduct myself in a way that I appreciated when working: filling in wellness and training data, minimising moaning, sleeping well, being honest about injury or illness. I remember what ‘athlete behaviours’ I should be striving to demonstrate and more to the point I know why they are important. I’ve spent enough time trying to get buy in from athletes and coaches to know how much more can be achieved when they comply. However, the emotion and enormity of what you’re trying to achieve can get to you; in my case, that is tightly linked with putting my physiology career on pause and the risk I took to follow the skeleton path. It can be a very testing environment and sometimes you just feel like your life is being determined by others or you’re not where you want to be in terms of making progress. In hindsight, these feelings are usually due to fatigue. When tired, you become less rational and the athlete behaviours can slip.

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Strength testing in the physiology lab

As the athlete, you’re not always involved in decision making and a lot goes on at a programme level that you don’t see. Our job is to put in the work, hit our goals and to grow as athletes and people. It is important to trust in the vision and direction of the performance director, coaches and support team. However, I sometimes find this difficult because I have a need to know why I do things. Having been part of athlete support teams, I am used to knowing the behind the scenes, so it was quite a big change to not always be a part of those conversations. If I am striving for a certain time on the push track or score on a physio test I ask why. Fortunately, as a more senior athlete I do now get to see more of what goes behind the training plans and goals. The team know my background so I quite often get to see a little more of the spreadsheet, as they know I am interested and will understand. This allows my inner spreadsheet geek to live on!

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Sprinting through a series of light gates is a way of measuring running speed

I don’t get to practise or apply exercise physiology in the way I used to. Yes, we use force plates and light gates, fill in wellness and training data, take part in special projects and so on, but when you’re the subject you’re not exposed to the same level of insight. What I am becoming though, is an expert of my body. How much sleep I need, what food I should eat, how I best warm up, what coaching cues help my performance, when I need more rest, what my peak power is, what a healthy body composition looks like for me. I am also further developing soft skills such as assertiveness, effective communication, team work and resilience. So, whilst I miss working as an exercise physiologist every day, I hope that this break will firstly, fulfil the desire to play the athlete and secondly grant me new skills and understanding from the athlete point of view that will be useful when I do return to work one day. In the meantime, I am giving skeleton my all and focusing on a huge goal: the 2022 Olympics in Beijing!

Creating champions: Physiology in elite sport

By Kim Murray, Great Britain skeleton athlete, @KimMurray88

I decided to be a sports scientist aged 13. It only struck me quite recently that this was quite a young age to settle on a career. I’d been identified as a talented athlete in the South and was selected to attend a training camp where a workshop introduced me to the concept of sports science. The idea that you could work to help athletes be faster, stronger, fitter, that you could be a part of their team, really hooked me. At that point, my ‘team’ consisted of me and my coach; I didn’t know there could be more.

Although I didn’t yet know about the various areas of sports science, after that day I set out to learn more to make this career path happen. It was during my placement year at the University of Bath that I chose to specialise in physiology. I loved the physicality of exercise testing: seeing athletes push themselves to incredible physiological limits. I am generally fascinated by the human body and liked the tangible nature of physiology compared to psychology for instance.

I craved the high-performance end of sport science. I, myself was competing at national and international competitions in the long jump and felt the most affinity with helping athletes at the top of their game, trying to find an extra couple of percent.

Helping athletes achieve their best

Six months after I graduated from my Masters at Loughborough University, I started working as a junior exercise physiologist at the sportscotland institute of sport. For the first time, I was part of a team of experts working to improve performance. I enjoyed the collaboration, learning from my colleagues and trying to answer the questions asked to make a performance impact. The work was very varied and I got to experience a lot of sports, national governing bodies, coaches and athletes. After a year or so I applied for an exercise physiologist role and graduated from my junior position, allowing me to lead physiology support in several sports. Highlights included being on camp with Scottish Rowing and working in the prep camp and village for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. I felt like I could deliver the biggest impact when working in an integrated way as part of a performance team.

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Testing in the lab in Stirling. I’m with a colleague, Julie Erskine, and cross-country ski athlete Callum Smith. source: sportscotland

Every day was different. I utilised many aspects of exercise physiology to best support the coaches and athletes I was involved with. With athletics, there was a lot of work with the endurance group around altitude and exercise testing. The rowers who were students needed more education on hydration and recovery strategies as well as training monitoring in a camp environment. There were several female athlete projects focussed on athlete health and wellbeing. I ran an extensive project collecting GPS and heart rate data on the netball team to gather up-to-date information on match intensities and demands, and to inform training. The team also filled in wellness and training dairies which I monitored, intervening when appropriate to flag fatigue. All the data I collected was relayed to the multidisciplinary teams within each sport, the coaches and the athletes as appropriate to solve performance questions and positively impact the performance of the athletes or team.

Following the Olympic dream

I had my dream job, but I wasn’t entirely content. Seeing and working with, sometimes even being a part of the success of the athletes and teams brought with it a desire to play the athlete again. There is a buzz you get as a member of the support team but I wanted to know that buzz having delivered the performance myself. In 2014 I trialled for #powertopodium, a UK Sport and British Skeleton talent identification search for ‘the next Lizzy Yarnold, Olympic skeleton champion’. Lured in by the possibility of realising that Olympic dream, I thought it would be a good opportunity, although I didn’t have high hopes!

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After six months of physical testing, competing against 1000 other skeleton wannabes, I got selected for the fourth and final phase and went out on ice for the first time. This was the start of my transition to the ‘other side’. I now work with my own support team, and I’m currently training for the Beijing Olympics in 2022. Becoming the athlete has brought its share of challenges and a new mindset, but the physiologist in me remains curious about the behind the scenes.


Check back next week for the Part 2 of Kim’s blog: Road to the Olympics.