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Ryan Cochrane, an Olympic bronze medal winner in the 1500m freestyle in Beijing, China in 2008, talks with Head Coach Randy Bennett between sets as he prepares to compete in this year's summer Olympics in London,UK, during a training session at the Saanich Commonwealth Place near Victoria, BC. (Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail)
Ryan Cochrane, an Olympic bronze medal winner in the 1500m freestyle in Beijing, China in 2008, talks with Head Coach Randy Bennett between sets as he prepares to compete in this year's summer Olympics in London,UK, during a training session at the Saanich Commonwealth Place near Victoria, BC. (Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail)

Science of Sport

Part speed, part stamina, all strategy Add to ...

The test, says Johnson, “allows us to determine the absolute volume of red blood cells an athlete has. If you think about red blood cells, the hemoglobin part of that red blood cell is your oxygen-carrying capacity for the body. So in theory, the more red blood cells you have, the better you’re able to supply oxygen to your muscles during exercise.”

The hemoglobin mass number is used to determine how effective all the aerobic training has been. The number comes with an absolute range of 300 grams to 1,800 grams. World-class athletes aspire to become members of the so-called 1,000-grams club.

Cochrane’s hemoglobin mass counts are a confidential matter.

As for his anthropometric test results, skin-fold measures are taken on eight specific parts of the body then calculated to tell if an athlete has gained or lost fat, or lean mass. Suffice it to say the guy who can swim 1,500 metres in less than 15 minutes is in fine working order. And Johnson plans to keep it that way, even to the point of enforcing the stay-healthy program with its hand-washing, crowd-avoiding practices.

“The one time someone gets sick it can completely wipe out four to eight years of work,” Johnson says. “So it is incredibly important and I often feel like a bit of nag, ‘Have you used hand sanitizers? Have you had enough fluids?’ We try to cover off every detail.”

The Athlete, Coach

In the end, it’s up to the coach to channel all this science and make it successful. Cochrane and Bennett have worked together for eight years.

Bennett knows his athlete’s moods and personality, when to push and when to back away.

Cochrane has matured as a swimmer and knows what feels right. Getting poked, prodded, pinched and measured doesn’t always feel good, but it’s the premise that counts.

“For me, it’s nice to know that they’re doing everything they can from a sports science side of it,” Cochrane says, “that there’s nothing that goes undone.”

While some coaches could feel threatened by so many hands stirring the water, Bennett is eager for every bit of feedback he can get. His take is academic: He has a collection of PhDs at his disposal and they’re all keen to calculate what Cochrane should eat, what dietary supplements he should avoid, how he feels and why it’s important for him to discuss those emotions with his IST sports psychologist.

“I’ve worked on a lot of that,” Cochrane says of his mental state for the 2012 Olympics. “Motivation was a huge thing for me this year, knowing why I swim, because I used to always say, ‘Oh, it’s a job. It’s what I do.’ That helps you get through the hard times … but to get on the top of the podium, it can’t just be a job. It has to be a passion. So with all the sports science and having utilized it, it’s important to prepare myself mentally as well.”

Minus the computer chip under the skin, it’s all there for Cochrane.

With weeks to go before his first swim in London (he’ll compete in the 400-metre freestyle before the 1,500), there are still training efforts to tweak, blood to give and metres to swim. As the keeper of the athlete, the coach likes what he’s seeing.

“I thought the 800 [metres] free he swam at the worlds last year and got second was probably the best race I’ve ever seen him manage,” Bennett says as his prized pupil torpedoes through the water. “I definitely don’t think he’s swam his best race yet in the 1,500. That’s what we hope to see in London.”

This is the fourth story in a 10-part weekly series on the science behind the athletes’ preparation for the London 2012 Games. Next week: Trampoline

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