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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 24 May, 2018

What makes an elite athlete? One of Ireland's top physiologists put us to the test

Is elite performance more about genetics or dedication? We met sports physiologist Caroline MacManus to discuss.


WHEN ATHLETES COMPETE on the big stage for medals, the performance we see is the culmination of a detailed training programme.

We all accept that graft is required to succeed but the minutiae of their preparation remains something of an unknown to those of us outside the world of high performance sport.

Whether it’s a dash to the line in a 100-metre sprint, or an endurance run on a cross-country circuit, the work invested in every facet of their preparation is precisely tailored.

Trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists and doctors all play a role in helping an athlete.

Fionnuala McCormack Fionnuala McCormack in action during the 2016 SPAR European Cross Country Championships. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

Based in the Sport Ireland Institute, sports physiologist Caroline MacManus has been working with Irish athletes for the past 17 years. Renowned competitors including Fionnuala McCormack and Olympic silver medalists the O’Donovan brothers have all benefited from her service.

Through gathering objective data, MacManus is able to ensure that each athlete is training efficiently while protecting them from burnout.

“When they come into me, we look at taking values,” she explains. “We might be looking at lactate to make sure they’re working at the right intensities, heart rates as well to see if you’re working too hard or you’re not working hard enough.”

“We might look at other biological systems, hormonal or immune function markers, and see how they responded to phases of training and see if they need to put measures in place not to overdo it.”

“Particularly in endurance sport, that is often what we’re trying to do to make sure they don’t overdo it but that they do enough to make sure we get the best performance out of them.

“I can’t say there’s any athlete I’ve worked with who was lazy. They just want to do it, they want to go out and want to perform.”

Another aspect of how MacManus contributes to their training is through fitness tests that she supervises in a laboratory. These controlled tests allow her to measure how the body responds to different levels of exercise and establish a base line of their general fitness levels.


During my visit to Abbotstown to meet MacManus, I underwent one of these physical tests. Before the test, she took readings of my height, weight and skin fold to get an understanding of my body composition.

I then stepped onto a large treadmill for the fitness test, which was an uninterrupted run over three-minute intervals. Using a harness and some tubes, I was hooked up to technology that would give MacManus an accurate insight into how my body responded to the exertion.

I started off at a warm-up pace and the speed was increased after each phase. Between phases, MacManus asked me to point to a number on a piece of paper to indicate how difficult I found the run.

Naturally, that number increased as the pace got faster.

The machine is designed to stop immediately if you succumb to fatigue, and the harness is also part of that safety measure to prevent injury.

I continued going through the phases until I felt unable to continue.

The high-performance athletes complete these tests throughout the year. For context, I reached level 14 before stopping; MacManus would expect the international athletes to aim for levels in the mid-20s.

After the test, MacManus talked me through the data collected from my exercise test and observed that I could have hung in and persevered for one more three-minute increment. This refers to the moment during training when an athlete transitions from aerobic to anaerobic stages of exercise.

MacManus explained to me:

Your anaerobic thresholds tell us where you’re transferring from primarily aerobic energy systems into your anaerobic energy systems. Once you’re in that anaerobic stage, that’s the feeling of “I can’t go for very much longer.” Our elite athletes are very good at tolerating that.

“And having a massive aerobic base helps you to do that.”

Determining what makes a successful athlete, however, is difficult to measure. Natural talent, genetic advantages and a drive to train diligently are all necessary attributes when aspiring for greatness.

But through years of experience, MacManus has discovered that other factors can make the difference as well.

“I think there’s a component of both (genetics and effort). I can’t say whether it’s one or the other.

“If you want to look at the O’Donovan brothers as an example, they have these really long arms which make for big levers and that’s a longer stroke. I could never be an Olympic champion and I could never row as well as they could.”

Gary and Paul O'Donovan Gary and Paul O'Donovan performing at the Olympics. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Equally, they’re hard as nails. There are athletes who are brilliant trainers and they never race well. Then there are athletes who nothing gets in their way, nothing winds them up, and they just get on with it and they do it.

Paul (O’Donovan) is ignorant to pain and doesn’t acknowledge it but Gary equally, is hard. Two people rowed that boat to an Olympic medal.

She continued: ”The ones that come up to the cream, yes, they’ll have the genes, the big engines, and they are prerequisites for rowing.”

“The person who doesn’t work as hard generally won’t perform at international level.

There are people who come in and you can see it in the lab as well in those (fitness) tests, they’ll go until you are peeling them off the ground. They’re performers. There’s also athletes who are just always good in competition no matter what.

“There’s never a doubt in my mind that they will get the best performance out of themselves because they want to perform.”

The O’Donovan brothers were indeed one of the most memorable stories from Rio 2016. In addition to being superb competitors, they endeared themselves to the nation through their positive disposition and entertaining interviews.

The public misread the brothers on occasion, taking their moments of comedy for acts of foolishness. But MacManus has learned that athletes who enjoy their training, tend to have greater success.

“A lot of the most successful athletes I’ve worked with, all have fun while they’re doing it because hours and hours of training is not fun. There is a level of jovialness and joking around it. Different personalities but at the end of the day they love what they do.”

“Then when it comes to competition, they don’t overthink it. It’s like, “well I’ve trained for it so I’ll get out and basically go as hard as I can.” They’re not afraid to try things in different scenarios on the big stage. The fear of failing is a big thing for people.”


Sports physiology also ensures there’s no hiding place for athletes. MacManus accounts for every possible factor including sleep intake when preparing her athletes so there’s very little room to perform outside her estimations.

“They may perform better than the condition that they’re in but you’ll always know where they are. In sports performance, you don’t pull stuff out of the hat – it doesn’t happen that way. If you’ve left something to chance, the chances are you’re gonna be back down the field.”

“If you consider it as much as you can and the things that you can control, then you see what you expect because there’s so much measurement on them and so much data on them that it isn’t a surprise.

“There are athletes I’ve worked with that may have taken two years to work on sleep but we got there, and they’ve moved from working on six hours a night to eight and a half hours a night. Six hours a night is not enough for an endurance athlete.”

Sonia O'Sullivan wins silver at the Olympic games Sonia O'Sullivan crosses the line at the Olympic Games in 2000. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

When MacManus first began studying sports science in the UK in the late 90s, it was a relatively unknown concept as far as the public was concerned.

Acceptance of how it can benefit athletes was achieved over time, but MacManus is confident that there can be little argument against the credibility of sports physiology today.

Most of what I do is measured, so it’s very hard to argue with objective information. ‘This is what your body has said, so I’m not telling you and I’m not spoofing you.’ Where the challenge can arise is if people don’t understand and I suppose that’s another part of my role, that I’m not throwing jargon at people.

“What you want to do is make sure you are clear in what you’re measuring and why you’re measuring it and what the outcome will be if you buy into it.”

MacManus departs for New Zealand later this month to take up a role with their High Performance Unit where she will work exclusively with the rowers. She’s sad to be leaving Ireland, but the core philosophy she has applied to her work over the last 17 years will be coming with her.

“By doing the basics right and doing them right consistently, you’ll get the best performance out of those athletes rather than looking for something else. Identify a weakness, get that right.

“Eating properly and training at the right intensities, you do those consistently well, you will see an improvement in performance. I’ll never move away from doing the basics consistently.”

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