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Own The Podium's SPIN Summit drives athletic innovation ahead of Tokyo Olympics

TORONTO — The future of sport science has arrived, and it includes mouthwash, kangaroos and electric brain stimulation.

More than 225 sport scientists, researchers, and coaches gathered in Toronto on Tuesday for the first day of the Own the Podium SPIN Summit. The three-day event is hosted by Canada's high-performance program with the goal of maximizing athletic performance in international competition.

Amarah Epp-Stobbe, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, won the top prize for The Dr. Gord Sleivert Young Investigator Awards on Tuesday for her work with Rugby Canada's women's sevens team. 

Her ongoing research focuses on the impact physical contact has on fatigue levels and the value of limiting that contact to avoid overexertion. It's an area of study that goes beyond concussions and instead considers how a hit to a thigh or shoulder might tax a body's internal resources.

"We're able to talk around a practice plan so we can be like 'O.K., we want to train for a pretty heavy contact load, that's going to be eight tackles today,'" said Epp-Stobbe, giving an example of her work. "The other target is when you think of a game, if we understand how challenging different contacts are, this is a tackle, this is a hit, and we know that five tackles equals a really tired player we can say 'hey coach, you better consider subbing off that player.'"

Erica Gavel, a PhD student at the Ontario Tech University, was a runner up for the Sleivert award for her research into the benefits of menthol for athletes. Gavel found a connection between using mouthwash and improved performance in competitive female cyclists.

"Essentially, the mouthrinse increases the activity in the reward centres of the brain and so your body feels better and increases motor output," said Gavel. "From there, your body decides to work harder."

Gavel is a member of Canada's women's wheelchair basketball team that won gold at the Parapan Am Games in Lima, Peru, on Aug. 30. She'll be competing for Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and plans to put her research into practice at the Games.

"I think it would be wrong if I didn't," laughed Gavel. "People know it's my master's thesis and they know it improved performance but I haven't been pushing it on my team. Maybe I could make some money in the athletes' village?"

The SPIN Summit — SPIN stands for "sport innovation" — is in its 14th year. As part of Own The Podium's ongoing mandate to help Canada win more Olympic medals, the innovations shared at previous editions of the annual conference have already been put into practice.

Dr. Marc Klimstra, the Innovation & Research Lead at the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, was involved in Epp-Stobbe's research and also oversaw the development of a project that Cycling Canada has started using.

"Matt Jensen, who won the Young Investigator Award twice, invented a device that would go on to a power metre and it gives you higher-resolution measures of power," said Klimstra. "So not just one sample every pedal stroke but you have thousands of samples for every pedal stroke so you can see exactly what happened.

"We actually have that technology on the bikes for our track cycling teams now."

Although the studies are often focused on just one sport, the lessons learned can be applied to several different disciplines. One area of particular interest at this year's SPIN Summit was how bodies can better manage heat, a pressing issue at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

One lecture given on Tuesday afternoon detailed the development of a cooling system for cyclists — inspired by kangaroos licking themselves to survive in the Australian desert — that relies on cooling plates on the handlebars of bikes that riders can rest their forearms on to regulate their body temperature.

Another speaker gave an overview of the study of electric brain stimulation before and after practice or competition. Several studies have found an improvement in fatigue tolerance after mild shocks were applied to athletes' heads.

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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press