Why we need heroes

September 15, 1995

Aisling Irwing reports from the British Association for the Advancement of Science festival at Newcastle University.

The study of top sports performers has a valuable role to play in research into human performance as a whole, the British Association was told.

In his presidential address to the conference Sir Roger Bannister, who is chairing the National Heritage department working party on sports scholarships, said: "Such studies show the human machine under experimental conditions with both the mind and body at their most determined and efficient."

Looking at the reasons for continued improvements in top-level performance Sir Roger, who was in 1954 the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes, asked: "Is modern training reaching a point where athletes damage the immune system and so become more liable than in previous years to injury?"

Arguing for increased application of science to sports medicine, Sir Roger said Britain lagged behind other countries - notably Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United States which have national Sports Science Institutes. Welcoming Government proposals for a national academy of sports science, he said: "It would provide an opportunity for those approaching the highest level of sport to receive the scientific training which they legitimately deserve and need."

* People who take regular exercise can cope better with emotional stress, the BAAS also heard. Peter Salmon, of the department of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool, has gathered evidence on exercise and stress and produced a theory of "stress adaptation", in which learning to withstand one sort of stress increases ability to cope with another sort.

"The studies have usually been done in animals," he said. Rats which learn to cope with frustration, for example, are then better able to withstand electric shocks. In humans, the "toughening up" effect of regular exercise has been studied. Dr Salmon also reported that those who do hard exercise every day suffer withdrawal symptoms when they stop and are still showing signs of depression after two weeks.

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