Journal of Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences

: 2019  |  Volume : 24  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 9--12

Sports physiology – An upcoming avenue

Ruchi Kothari1, Snigdha Sharma2,  
1 Department of Physiology, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Wardha, Maharashtra, India
2 Third MBBS Student, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Wardha, Maharashtra, India

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Ruchi Kothari
Associate Professor, Department of Physiology, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Sevagram, Wardha - 442 102, Maharashtra


The physiology of sports embodies a wide and diverse range of scientific interests. It is a recent outlet emanating from the discipline of exercise physiology that encompasses application of the concepts of exercise physiology to training athletes and enhancing sports performance. Sports physiology, a field that was once pursued almost exclusively in research laboratories and cardiac rehabilitation programs, is now commonly applied in comprehensive sports medicine clinics. Cardiorespiratory fitness is one of the most important parameters of physical fitness of an individual. This can be evaluated by assessing aerobic capacity (VO2max) and heart rate variability indices signifying the cardiac autonomic sympathovagal regulation. Both of these parameters derived from cardiorespiratory fitness assessment have been found sensitive to training effects in team sports players, thus of relevance in sports physiology.

How to cite this article:
Kothari R, Sharma S. Sports physiology – An upcoming avenue.J Mahatma Gandhi Inst Med Sci 2019;24:9-12

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Kothari R, Sharma S. Sports physiology – An upcoming avenue. J Mahatma Gandhi Inst Med Sci [serial online] 2019 [cited 2019 Mar 22 ];24:9-12
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Exercise physiology is a scientific discipline that elucidates the effects of exercise (in its many forms) on the physiologic systems and tissues of the body. It is the study of how the body structure and function are altered by exposure to acute and chronic exercise. Sports physiology, which is a recent outlet emanating from it, is the application of the concepts of exercise physiology to training athletes and enhancing sports performance. Sports physiology has assumed an increasingly prominent role in clinical sports medicine over the past few years. Clinical sports physiology is coming up as a subcomponent of exercise physiology involving the application of exercise physiology principles, knowledge, and skills for purposes of the rehabilitation or diagnosis of disease or disability in humans. The intention and the major challenge is to collate the most pertinent of scientific interests into a coherent strategy for future research in sports physiology.

 Historical Background

The discipline of sports physiology dates back to the early 20th century. In 1927, the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory was founded, and for the succeeding two decades, the researchers conducted numerous studies that helped to update our knowledge of the physiologic and metabolic responses to exercise and were subsequently responsible for the development of sports physiology research laboratories in several prominent US universities.

Initial research focused on the affect of different occupations on the body, environmental physiology like altitude, dry, moist heat, metabolism during exercise and aging, blood gas transport, acid–base balance, and nutrition.

The period 1960–1980 has been considered the era of sports and athletics.[1] The primary emphasis during this period was on:

Diet, exercise, and muscle glycogenMetabolic demands of differing exercise intensitiesDeterminants of exercise performanceEffects of training on function and performanceExercise in various environmental conditionsWhat strategies delay fatigue?

Around 1980, physicians got hooked on exercise and the benefits of exercise training we recognized as health promotion and quality of life, heart function in diseased populations, and disease prevention and rehabilitation.

Sports physiology has grown dramatically from those rather humble origins. It has now become the focus of academic training and research in most major universities in the United States and many around the world. The American College of Sports Medicine, a multidisciplinary professional organization of over 20,000 members, is an important scientific society for exercise physiologists, particularly those with an interest in clinical applications of the field to athletes and sportspersons.[2]

 New Frontiers in Sports Physiology

Successful performance of sportspersons requires the integration of multiple physiological and psychological systems, working together to regulate exercise intensity in a way that will reduce the time taken or increase work done. The systems limiting performance of the task are hotly contested and may depend on a variety of factors including the type of task, the environment, external influences, training status of the individual, and a host of psychological constructs. A reductionist approach has traditionally been favored which leads to a greater understanding and emphasizes on cardiorespiratory physiology, but the role of the brain and how this integrates multiple systems is gaining momentum. However, these differing approaches may have led to a false dichotomy, and now with better understanding of both fields, there is a need to bring these perspectives together.[3]

In the near future, a sports physiologist will be required to master the following:

Far-reaching pure science academic base (cardiology, pulmonary physiology, etc.)Broad-applied academic base (exercise prescription, athletic/sports training)Sophisticated equipment and technologiesSuperior research skills.

The role of the following is being delved further in recent times:

Exercise in special populations: disabled people, the elderly, children, and pregnant womenDevelopment of new technologies and techniquesExercise in supporting body functions in varied environments of microgravity, deep sea, high altitudes, etc.

 Raison D'être for a Sports Physiology Laboratory

Very often, it is of interest to know an athlete's capacity for physical work. Furthermore, a reduction of this capacity might be the first sign of disease.[4],[5],[6],[7] Cardiorespiratory fitness is one of the most important parameters of physical fitness of a sportsman and is assessed by a battery of tests including assessment of VO2max, 40-mmHg test, breath-holding test, etc. A number of fitness parameters are supposed to be evidently better in athletes. VO2max has been defined as the level of oxygen consumption beyond which no further increase in oxygen consumption occurs with further increase in the severity of exercise.[8],[9]

Better understanding of the interrelationship between VO2 and exercise intensity can help a sports physiologist to assess the accurate amount of exercise required in different individuals like in athletes involved in different types of sports or in untrained individuals to prevent diseases. A better cardiorespiratory fitness is known to translate into a lower cardiac disease risk in future. Hence, it becomes quintessential to monitor the physical fitness of individuals and evolve on the detection and prevention of lifestyle-related chronic diseases. This calls for the setup of a sports physiology laboratory where adequate assessment of fitness of an individual can be done.

The clinical parameters that can be assessed in such a laboratory are as follows:

Aerobic fitness parameter: VO2max, i.e. aerobic capacity of an individual also called maximal oxygen uptake or maximum oxygen consumption, is the single best measure of cardiorespiratory efficiency. Aerobic capacity is an important element of success in sports achievements and determines the performance of an athlete on the field. Physiologically, VO2max is the intensity of an individual to increase metabolic processes with the requirements of increased physical efforts.[10] This results due to the transformation of chemical energy into mechanical one[11],[12]Heart rate variability (HRV) analysis yields certain time domain indices that represent the overall variability of heart rate (HR) over the time of recording and some frequency spectrum indices that signify the parasympathetic activity by high-frequency (HF) power, sympathetic activity by low-frequency (LF) power, and sympathovagal balance represented by LF/HF ratio.

The useful parameters are as follows:

To assess the work capacity of healthy individuals and fitness status of army and defense personnel, athletes, sportspersons, and persons working in similar occupationsTo aid in the diagnosis of heart and lung diseasesFor pre- and postoperative evaluation of cardiothoracic patientsFor the rehabilitation of cardiac invalids and surveillance of postinfarction and diabetic patientsTo assess the respiratory function of patients for general anesthesia prior to surgeryFor monitoring efficiency of treatment and efficacy of physical training or yoga.

 Heart Rate Variability and Sports Physiology

HRV refers to the beat-to-beat alteration of the heart. It is becoming one of the most useful tools for assessing the complex and constantly changing variations in the oscillations of a healthy heart as it consists of changes in the time intervals between consecutive heartbeats. The fluctuations of a healthy heart are complex and constantly varying which allow the cardiovascular system to rapidly adjust to sudden physical and psychological encounters to homeostasis.

The HR varies relative to the body's physical needs, such as the need to absorb oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide, physical exercise, sleep, anxiety, stress, illness, ingesting, and drugs.[13],[14],[15] Athletes show an altered sympathovagal balance in response to different intensities and duration of aerobic training. Scientific data have shown that HRV taken immediately after exercise during recovery reflects characteristic responses indicating the body is to exercise, which is correlated with athletic fitness.[16]

A notable physical and physiological difference between athletes training for different sporting activities is observed;[15] HRV is developing as one of the most used training and recovery monitoring tools in sports sciences.[17],[18] The possibility of applying HRV on such variety is based on the fact that cardiovascular autonomic regulation is an important determinant of training adaptations, before also being responsive to training effects.[19]

The standard protocols and methods for research with athletes need to be established considering the intensity, duration of exercise, and the position of the body during recording and the duration of recording for the use of HRV in sports physiology. Accordingly, the short-term HRV measurement method which demands 5 min of data acquisition, may arguably improve the practicality of cardiac autonomic activity monitoring on a daily basis. This is significant because the optimization of recovery requires the monitoring of HRV following workouts, which is crucial for the prevention of the extreme accumulation of physical fatigue during preparation or competition.

 Key Message on Cardiorespiratory Assessment in Sports Physiology

The quantification of maximum oxygen uptake, i.e. VO2max, which is a parameter symbolizing the effective integration of the neural, cardiopulmonary, and metabolic systems, is a strong predictor of adverse health outcomes. Obtaining accurate and valid VO2max values is of utmost physiological significance when equaling individuals or groups, when following subjects longitudinally, or when various modes of exercise are used. On the other hand, HRV is used to obtain valuable data concerning physiological changes that occur in the response to physical activity. Referring to athletes, changes in the patterns of their autonomic nervous system reflected by altered HRV may serve as useful parameters for managing their physical fatigue and establishing their exercise intensity. Athletes who commonly participate in regular exercise, specifically persistent athletes, tend to have superior physiology compared to the average person.

Optimal training depends on matching the specific ability of an athlete, such as muscle, strength, endurance, and adaptability to the individual's aerobic capacity, training load, and recovery. For this purpose, the use of VO2max and HRV is particularly a suitable solution because it reflects the major regulatory processes after physical exercise. The utility of HRV as a tool to identify which measures are altered versus physical exercise, type, and intensity has been extended to demonstrate how monitoring physical fitness during exercise and postexercise periods can be applied to athletic training more broadly in the future.[20]

To conclude, it can be proposed that by linking HRV measurements to VO2max, the intensity of the exercise can be correlated with the HRV indices. Information regarding the extent to which the body recovers after training may yield valuable data for the personalization of sports training, training loads and recovery duration, target goal of reclamation, and maintaining the athlete in an efficient framework, which is imperative for sports physiology.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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