The University of Southampton
Research

Optimising sporting performance

Providing the competitive edge

Published: 
20 June 2017

In the world of elite sport the difference between winning and losing can come down to the narrowest of margins. For years engineering researchers at Southampton have been working alongside elite teams from across the sporting spectrum, in an effort to extract every last ounce of performance from body and machine.

Our people have been breaking new ground in delivering the tools, research and environments in which athletes can reach their full potential, using science to push them further in their fields. Increasingly teams are looking to science and technology to provide them with the competitive edge that would be the difference between reaching the top of their game. And Southampton is where they come.

A long-standing working relationship with the Research and Innovation team at the English Institute of Sport, has seen many athletes put through their paces with cyclists, swimmers, sailors, and Skeleton sliders all having benefitted from our world-leading facilities and research.

We have had a strong relationship with a number of sports, particularly through our relationship with English Institute of Sport. We invest highly in our PhD students and through our work we are certainly world leading in terms of performance sports engineering

Dr Joe Banks - Research Fellow

Developing new tools for swimmers

A swimmer diving into the pool

Research fellow Dr Joe Banks based his PhD around the performance of swimmers ahead of London 2012. His work studying hydrodynamic force as the body moves through water has been instrumental in developing new tools for coaches to give the best advice to their athletes.

He says: “If you consider hydrodynamic forces, you are trying to get the swimmer into a low drag or low resistance position, but you have to balance that with their ability to generate propulsion and their ability to move.”

Joe explains how his PhD students are now developing that research by examining what the human body is capable of. “We have modelled the muscular and skeletal system and looked at kinematics and the stroke dynamics. From that you can work out how much energy and power is needed to generate that motion against the fluid forces. Essentially trying to assess both what the body can do and what the generated fluid forces are. This is an important area we want to develop further in the future.”

His work continues to benefit athletes, many of whom will be heading for the FINA World Championships this summer. However, it is not just the human form he is interested in as Joe and his colleagues have been involved in improving the performance of machines moving through water, in the shape of multi-million pound elite sailing craft.

Optimising hydrofoils

His research is studying hydrofoils, the type used by the America’s Cup teams, and particularly how their performance changes when they are deformed by the fluid forces. The hydrofoils are the only part of the boat that are left in the water when the vessels appear to ‘fly’ over the surface and therefore are crucial to performance. These boats are also propelled by innovative wing sails rather than traditional ‘soft’ sails.

Joe explains: “Keeping weight to a minimum is absolutely crucial. For instance the wing sails are a lightweight ribbed structure with a membrane stretched over it, so we are looking at how these structures deform under fluid load and how this affects their performance.”

“Our long-term research goal is that the deformation of the structure is used to improve the performance of the foil over a wide range of fluid loadings.

“So rather than having to constantly control and change the foil to optimise performance the structures passively adapt their shape by being able to twist or adapt to give a better performance.”

PhD student Laura Marimon Giovannetti spent a year with the Land Rover BAR team as an intern running simulations around designs aimed at making the foils more efficient. She says: “Understanding the interaction between the fluid and the structure now that everything is built in composite materials is very important. Once you understand the interactions between fluids and structures you know the exact shape of the foil.”

Olympic aims

Her placement with the Land Rover BAR team has not only helped her career in the study of ship science, but has also helped in her ambitious to be an Olympic sailor herself. She hopes to be winning medals for the Great Britain Sailing team in Tokyo 2020 in the NACRA 17 class.

“I came to Southampton to study ship science because it was the best in the world. It was my dream come true to be a ship scientist and being an international level sailor myself it has benefited my campaign for Tokyo 2020.”

Joe’s talented group of PhD students also hope to take their research into the field of improving sailor performance by studying how their positions can be measured and analysed while out on the water as well as continuing to help athletes achieve their goals in a range of other sports.

Joe says: “We have had a strong relationship with a number of sports, particularly through our relationship with English Institute of Sport. We invest highly in our PhD students and through our work we are certainly world leading in terms of performance sports engineering.

“On a personal level you get to see the direct impact that you are having on a sport and on individual athletes and that is really incredible to see.”

More about Joe's research

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