Director, R&D, Human Performance Laboratory
Scientists lead the field in human-performance research
Athletes the world over are on tenterhooks as the state-of-the-art GSK Human Performance Lab considers one of sport’s most pressing concerns: do ice baths aid recovery?
This is just one of the areas Dr Ken van Someren is investigating as director of research and development at the advanced laboratory. Other areas of study, all of which relate to the limits of human performance, focus on questions such as “how does the brain perform under stress?”, “do athletes lose muscle mass and strength over the season?” and “what is the optimum diet for endurance competitors?”
Working with the likes of Jenson Button, triathlete brothers Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, the British Olympic Canoe and Kayak Sprint Racing team, and the English Institute of Sport among others, van Someren and his team are breaking new scientific ground. They’re currently measuring muscle mass with the help of a non-radioactive tracer pill co-developed by GSK – research with obvious benefits to the sporting elite, but which could also help ageing populations.
“We are working at the extreme end of achievement, but our findings can be used to benefit wider society,” says van Someren. As a former world-class kayaker – he has represented Great Britain at four world championships – this is his perfect day job. A 12-strong team consults with experts and researchers within human performance science, and Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes is also a technical adviser.
“The beauty of this work is being able to apply the science at the coal face with athletes and coaches and know it will have broader benefits,” says van Someren. ”I’m passionate about this not only because of my own sporting career but also because it has such a tangible impact.”
With a PhD in exercise physiology to complement his experience at the sharp end of competitive sport, he has worked with athletes at their physical limits. When his team helped Jenson Button prepare for the Grand Prix in Singapore, they used the lab’s environmental chamber that is capable of recreating almost any level of temperature and humidity.
Facilities at the 18,000 sq ft site combine cutting-edge technology and world-class science. A “hydro lab” with a swim flume, vast treadmills, gas analysers, a biochemistry lab and much more allows the team to develop bespoke nutrition, training and recovery plans for individual sports men and women.
Van Someren’s team worked with Shu Pillinger, who recently attempted to be the first British competitor to complete the 3,000-mile and 12-day race Race Across America (Raam), monitoring her during training and the event to contribute to her nutrition. “We also collected data during the race to understand better the impact of such an extreme event on physiological and cognitive function.”
He has also worked with Richard Parks, who last year became the fastest Briton to ski solo and unsupported from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. Parks collected saliva samples daily during his trek and completed exercises on a tablet computer for cognitive tests, such as short-term memory. “We received absolutely novel data that is fascinating,” says van Someren.
In fact, GSK’s facility also houses a cognition lab, where leading neuroscientists are examining how brain performance is linked to physical stress, for instance. “Neuroscientists have only recently started working in the field of elite human performance. It’s vital to investigate how humans perform at a higher level – whether that’s changing a wheel on a F1 car or making tactical decisions on the rugby pitch,” adds van Someren.
How a track athlete prepares for an intensive minute might differ vastly from what a cyclist would do. Van Someren hopes his research will help athletes pick the right food and the right training and recovery plans to push themselves further and faster. In return, the information gathered from van Someren’s research helps GSK with the development of healthcare products and medicines for the wider population.
As for the ice baths, the jury’s still out – amateurs and professionals will have to wait until early 2015 to know whether they’re worth it.
This article first appeared on the Telegraph STEM Awards website.