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.
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.
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!
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!