Transcript

Olympian Physiotherapy with Mark Alexander

8 August 2008

Mark-AlexanderMark Alexander

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 11 Mb].

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University podcast, I'd be your host Matt Smith. Good morning, good afternoon and good evening, it all depends on where you're standing. If I could have a big round of applause for my guest today, it's Mark Alexander! Thankyou for joining me, Mark.

Mark:

No problems.

Matt:

Mark lectures in Health Sciences at La Trobe University, and more importantly he's a sports physiotherapist for the Australian Olympic team, for the triathlon team heading to the Beijing Olympics this year. How'd you get that sort of job, Mark? You've been involved with the Olympics for a while now, haven't you?

Mark:

Yeah I've been involved with the triathlon team for six years and in elite sport for the last twelve years so it's just basically working my way up the ladder and I was a student at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and then that opened up a few opportunities into elite sport and then one thing led to another over the years with a personal interest into triathlon and contacts within the triathlon industry I got the job six years ago.

Matt:

Yeah, so this would be your second Olympics.

Mark:

Second Olympics with triathlon, I was in Sydney as a volunteer as well and I've been to two commonwealth games with them as well.

Matt:

Okay, and there's actually a lot of physiotherapists going from La Trobe University, isn't there?

Mark:

I was actually contacted by the media section and there's apparently ten which I wasn't actually aware of, that's quite a lot of physios. But we have a number of physios that are officially involved with the Australian team, unofficially involved with the Australian team, and also one of my students from last year is actually one of the physios for the British Olympic team, so we've got a lot heading over to Beijing.

Matt:

Yeah, you'd be amazed at what the media department can find out, you have no idea. They've got their contacts. You're not involved with the physiotherapists here, you've got your own team by the sounds of it. Do you have many people working with you with the triathlon team?

Mark:

No, there's only one physiotherapist involved in triathlon, that's obviously myself. We have a relatively small team in comparison to other teams in the Olympics, we have five athletes. Three girls and two boys. We only need one physio, I have a massage therapist as well and we have a sports physician, a doctor, heading up with us, and a dietician and a mechanic, so we have quite a large support team, but only one physiotherapist.

Matt:

You're just pretty much roadies for the Olympic team.

Mark:

Pretty much! It's amazing what we do on tour, I mean I obviously do sports physiotherapy, but the things that I've done over the last six years of driving trucks and cars, lifting bike bags, packing cars, trucks, making meals, preparing meals, degreasing bikes, basically anything and everything that is required just to get the team across the line.

Matt:

Yeah, well it wouldn't come down just to physiotherapy, you'd do whatever's needed at hand pretty much, to some extent.

Mark:

Exactly.

Matt:

Okay, well that's got to be an interesting job to have.

Mark:

It's fantastic, absolutely fantastic, and sometimes there's not doctors on tour so when I'm away and someone gets quite ill in the middle of the night I have to take them to hospital, or do various or random things like that, which can be exciting and at the same time quite scary when you're in foreign countries and you can't speak the language.

Matt:

That'd be really hard, what do you do then, do you have an interpreter on the team as well?

Mark:

A great thing in medicine, most people overseas tends to do speak English because it is the universal language, but even if they don't, through sign language and pointing to body parts and gestures and expressions you can actually get your message across so it's not too bad.

Matt:

So being a physiotherapist for an Olympic team, it's a long term goal, you've got to work with these people for years to get them to the Olympics. What sort of things do you have to monitor along the way?

Mark:

That's a good question. It is a long term process, I've been involved with the team for six years so I've seen these young guys that are in the team now from when they were 16, 15, 16, 17, they were little whippersnappers and now here they are going to an Olympic games. The things we've had to monitor along the way have been more muscular skeletal issues and medical issues. The doctors look after the medical side, so asthma testing, lung and respiratory function testing, blood testing. Whereas a physiotherapist I look after more the physical issues so flexibility, strength, stability, endurance of the muscles, just to make sure that we try and prevent injuries. For example, someone may have very poor balance on one side, they can't even stand on one leg because they may have sprained their ankle the year before, so we monitor that and we give exercises, and we improve their strength and their balance so that that leg that was imbalanced to start with hopefully doesn't move on to an injury 2, 3, 5 years down the track which may impact on their Olympic performance. The other thing we monitor is not just prevention of injury and risk factors of injury, we look at things that can improve their performance. So if they have quite a stiff upper back which can slow them down when they're swimming and riding, we look at those parameters and we then intervene, we improve their flexibility so that hopefully we can improve their performance. So as a sports physio I'm not just dealing with prevention of injury, I'm actually looking at enhancing performance as well, which is really really exciting.

Matt:

Are you keeping up with the cutting edge of technology with improving performance?

Mark:

Oh definitely. We have our first line of defence for that, which is our coaches. Our coaches are mostly qualified masters or PhD levels in exercise physiology, so they're the cutting edge of research when it comes to training methodology and research methodology and altitude testing and all of those sorts of parameters. Whereas myself, I obviously teach the masters in sports physio here at La Trobe, so I have to stay up to date when I'm teaching post graduate physiotherapists who are all wanting to become AFL sports physios or Olympic sports physios, so without a shadow of a doubt we have to stay up to date and definitely get cutting edge information.

Matt:

Where are the limits to what technology you can use to aid an athlete in the Olympic games? Is there a limit to the sort of things a triathlete person can use on them like what they wear to enhance their performance?

Mark:

Another really good question. I guess you look at the legs as three legs in the triathlon: swimming, riding and running. Now in swimming the limits on equipment are the wetsuits and there are laws on the wetsuits, on the thickness on the material, but the interesting thing in Beijing is it's actually not going to be a wetsuit swim because the laws in triathlon state that if the temperature's over 18 degrees it's not going to be a wetsuit swim so that really doesn't come into it in the swim. In the cycling league the technology is massive. It comes down to the bike and again, there's laws on the bike, on the parameters and the wheels, but these Olympic bikes are worth up to ten thousand dollars sometimes even more, which is sometimes more than our cars are worth. So it's phenomenal the research and the testing that goes into those, but all of our Olympians have bike sponsors and their expenses are met, and they have cutting edge technology going into their designs. When it comes to the run leg that's probably the least relevant when it comes to equipment, but their footwear, obviously it's cutting edge. They're so light that you can't even feel that you're wearing shoes but at the same time they're quite supportive. But really when it comes down to the run, that's where the gold medal is won or lost because you just have to be the fittest and fastest on the day getting out off that bike and crossing the finishing line first.

Matt:

You mentioned the cost of the bikes are met with by sponsors. Do you think that's going to be an issue where people are pressing hard to perform better, they're getting great prize money when they do win these sorts of events, they're getting sponsorship opportunities like that, that that's going to alter how the competition's going to go?

Mark:

Yeah, you could look at it that way but the reality is most of the guys that are competing at that level all have sponsorships and it's basically a level playing field. We have some athletes that are coming from Zimbabwe and South Africa that have very very poor access to good equipment and good training but because of our sport triathlon and the ITU, the International Triathlon Union, they provide a lot of funding to the nations that don't have good equipment and good coaching and fund young athletes to get all around the world. And the evidence of that is one of the Olympians from Sweden won the under 23 world championships last year and she was an athlete with no coach, no sponsor, no equipment and she comes out and wins a world championship and now she's going to the Olympic games, so it really is a level playing field and I think when it comes to bikes and bike sponsors I don't think it will really impact on people's performances or their end result.

Matt:

Do you think that records that are being broken now or that will be broken with the current Olympic games can kind of be compared to how they would have been played maybe forty years ago.

Mark:

No, it's one of those things with technology and with equipment and with training methods you can't really compare. I mean you look at the swimming and I think there's been over forty-five world records broken already this year with swimming and that's unheard of. And that's because of the new Speedo swimsuit, the fastsuit. And you can't compare those times now with the times that Dawn Fraser would have swam back in 1956, 60, and 64, breaking world records, because everything is different with the swimsuits these days, so technology does come into it.

Matt:

But should that be a valid record though? Because that's kind of like entering a cheat code in a computer game, having a swimsuit that lets you do that.

Mark:

Yeah, I see your point. I'm a sports physiotherapist so I can stay out of those debates luckily. I do have opinions on it and I think progress is progress. I play golf and since the new clubs have come out over the last couple of years and new golf balls I can hit the ball between 50 and 75 metres further with no change of myself or my own swing, so would I take that back? Probably not, because I love hitting the ball further, and I think these guys with new swimsuits and new bikes, you could never go back, and technology and the money involved in sport is phenomenal, and that's where all this is driven by, the big bike companies, the big golf companies, the big footwear companies are pouring millions and millions of dollars into R&D so they get great products that improve performance. Of course the athletes want to improve their performance so the big money companies will pay the athletes to use all their equipment and their products, so it's really an endless cycle, it will always evolve into better performance.

Matt:

Just finally, on a personal note for you. Have you picked up much Chinese in preparation of your trip?

Mark:

To be perfectly honest I'm heading off to Borders to pick up my Beijing Lonely Planet guide to pick up a bit of language...

Matt:

Oh no, make sure they've actually gone to the country, because I hear that... probably shouldn't say that on the podcast!

Mark:

I've heard some dodgies about Lonely Planet! But no, to answer your question no I haven't, but I am going to pick up a language book to pick up some tips, and I am ready to get up there and do a lot of shopping and a bit of sightseeing after the games and hopefully come away with some medals for the team.

Matt:

Okay, well best of luck, best of luck to you and the triathlon team, and the rest of the La Trobe people who are heading over there and thanks for your time today.

Mark:

Thanks very much.

Matt:

Mark Alexander, probably the closest I'll ever get to going to the Olympics, considering I've been declared an unco by the Australian Institute of Sports!