University of Gloucestershire Academic Subject Leader for Sport and Exercise Sam Barry-Wilson, talks in this article about how a chance conversation led to working with British Triathlon. It is a great example to anyone starting out on a career in Sports Therapy as to how things can develop, and the opportunities that can arise. For Society member Sam, her work in triathlon has provided her with great material for further study and also opened up some great experiential opportunities for her students.
Your work with British Triathlon goes back 10 years or even more –how did you first get involved?
In the very first sports injury clinic I worked in, I treated a patient who was involved in British Triathlon. As our conversation grew, he mentioned that championship events ran yearly and to various destinations and that my services as a sports therapist would be useful. I got in touch with British Triathlon and the rest is history. I have travelled across the globe with them to places I would never have dreamt of visiting. Often the championships are held in towns and cities that people are less familiar with. Since 2006 I have travelled with British Triathlon to one or two events a year; European events and World Championships. This opportunity has taken me as close to home as Edinburgh and as far from home as Australia and almost everywhere in between. I have been truly blessed with the experiences I have had.
Tell us a little about your latest trip to the Tri World Championships in Rotterdam
This event was the grand final in the ITU World Championship Series with races for the para-tri team, elite, age groupers and juniors. Both Sprint races and standard Olympic distance races were taking place that required pre-qualification (that usually happens somewhere on British turf. The British age-group team (which was the group I predominantly worked with at this event) comprised approximately 700 athletes. The British team always has a large presence at events held in Europe. Rotterdam itself was beautiful and although it rained most of the time, the sunshine came out on race day for the Age groupers.
What was your main role and how long were you there for?
My role as Team Therapist is to offer pre-race and post- race therapy. For the most part this is basic race prep and soft tissue work, but many come with injuries that have been sustained in the lead up to the worlds and sometimes longer. Of course, the work is pretty reactive and I can only do what I can in such a short time frame. It’s imperative that I don’t overload the athletes or aggravate; this could have negative implications on the race. I do whatever I can to make them move better, feel less pain or be more confident that that “niggle” they have felt in training will be okay.
Occasionally I get athletes who go out for a bike race and fall off, or feel something on a training run, so I do what I can in the time before the race. I was flown out on Tuesday night and booked in for treatments from Wednesday to Sunday. The days are pretty full on, as you can imagine with such a large team. In total I saw about 35-40 athletes . Luckily for me there was another team therapist with me who I have worked with a number of times. There is a pool of about 7 or 8 therapists who are used for these major events.
What were the main injuries you had to deal with?
This year the main issues were Hamstrings - mid belly and insertional problems, broken toes, Post shoulder surgery, Hip impingements, Lower back problems, – you name it- although, I didn’t have many knee based complaints this time. There is certainly a lot of work to mobilise feet and ankles.
In terms of the three disciplines which do you feel causes the most problems for the competitors?
I would say that the majority of pain is brought about by either a) Coming off the bike by crashing or b) Overload. Triathletes often train too much and see themselves creeping into non-functional over reaching. I would say that overload causes many of the running based issues for triathletes but the great thing about triathlon is that there is always another discipline you can be working on. I see very few problems related to swimming other than the odd issue caused usually by poor Range of Movement (ROM) or strength.
Triathlon is a gruelling event – did you find yourself dealing with the mental side of eventing as well as the physical side?
Every athlete is different. I am acutely aware that I have the ability to affect someone’s current mind state with regard to the race. Pretty quickly you get a feel for how that person is feeling about the task ahead and their approach to it. I find myself saying “ Yes I’ve heard it’s a technical bike course, but no more difficult than X race” or “ Yes it might rain, but everyone is facing the same conditions” Mostly I find that it settles those who are nervous.
How have things changed in triathlon in recent years? Has the medical provision changed?
I don’t think the medical provision has changed drastically, but certainly there are now more dedicated teams. For example in the early 2000’s I was assigned to treat Elite only, in another year I was responsible for both elites and age groups. The para – tri team have their own therapist, although I did treat Andy Lewis this year, as do the age groupers and elite. Andy won World and European titles this year and won gold in Rio.
Triathlon has become immensely popular in recent times – why do you think this is so?
I think the 2012 Olympics played a huge role in this growth. Since that time there has been mass growth in sports, coupled with some very successful events for British athletes. Britain has a very strong group of competitors on the circuit with very promising juniors who we will start to see much more of. The Brownlee brothers are everywhere from GSK Human Performance Labs to Yorkshire tea adverts – these guys have been an inspiration to the next generation of world class triathletes and I think we can expect great things.
We understand you are studying for a PhD investigating the stress and immune response to exercise and recovery intervention. Have you worked with triathletes as part of your study?
The first investigation was undertaken at the World Championships in London 2013. 13 age group athletes took part in this study and did a great job of providing me with saliva samples in the lead up to, before and after the race. The idea of the study was to investigate the athlete’s response to a field based event, which is challenging, due to all of the external factors that could affect the athlete. I measured Cortisol a stress marker and IgA an immune function marker. The results of this work are yet to be presented or published…so I will save the surprise. I took 10 Sports Therapy students to volunteer at this event; some helped with data collection and others provided therapy to athletes from all over the world.
As Academic Subject Lead for Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire what advice would you give to anyone thinking about a career in Sports Therapy?
I do this job because I love it! Helping people to develop/achieve/perform/compete is a pleasure and I was overwhelmed when Andy Lewis MBE tweeted me after Rotterdam to say thank you for treating him. He was able to train the next day which would have been important to him – that’s what it is all about. My advice would be take every opportunity offered to you. Make links, make contacts, knock on doors and show them your value. Everything I am proud of has come out of an opportunity or an experience. They won’t know how good you are until you show them.