Dr. Dan Interview 4: Sports Science
Dr. Dan Plews is a world class endurance sports scientist and coach. He’s one of our founders and leading minds behind the TRIQ app and also happens to be the IRONMAN® Kona age-group course record holder. In our 6-interview series we will try to ask him as much as possible about the triathlon sports, his personal journey and the science that allows the TRIQ app to plan triathlon training in a truly dynamic way.
1. In our three previous interviews regarding each of the triathlon sports, we’ve heard that you started them at a pretty young age. It’s apparent that you liked endurance sports. When did this passion take a more scientific turn?
I specifically remember the moment. I was at Club La Santa, a family holiday resort on Lanzarote. But it’s super sport focused and you just go there to train all day :) I remember a part of being there was you could do a Conconi test. This is basically a test that is thought to identify the anaerobic threshold. The test just gets harder and harder until you see a deflection in HR. I just remember being fascinated by what the test all means. I must have been 12 or 13.
2. What was the first small thing you ever studied and tracked that might qualify as the initial scientific steps you took that planted the seed that would later help develop you into the multi-faceted expert that you are today?
Good question. I was always fascinated by heart rate. I remember tracking my HR and then getting some reports. I loved it, but I just didn't know how to apply it to training so I guess that was the start.
3. What was Dan Plews like as a university student? Where did you go? What were you most interested in and how did you find your path to actually deciding to become a sports scientist yourself?
To be honest I was a really bad student. I went to Loughborough University, which is one of the best universities for Sports Science in the world. But I was there mainly to train with the national team, as it was also one of the British Triathlon Federations High Performance Centres. I didn’t go to many lectures and I was mainly concerned about training.
4. Could you tell us a little bit about studies you were involved in before you eventually decided on your PhD topic? Can you look back at what you picked exactly and why?
After my undergraduate at Loughborough University (where I still managed to get a 2nd class honors), I went to Leeds University to do a Masters. Here I was under a scholarship with the BTF (British Triathlon Foundation), as an assistant coach. This is the point when I really started to apply myself to my studies. For my MSc it was very triathlon related; I investigated the effects of variable cycling intensity on running economy. From there I moved to Singapore, and was working as an applied practitioner there, but still did some research. This is where I met my PhD supervisor Prof Paul Laursen. We actually did some research together whilst I was in Singapore. We studied core temperature and pacing in a 70.3 triathlon.
5. We’ll do a separate interview with you on your history as a coach. However, would you tell us how your sports science and coaching careers intersected and developed and coexisted together over the years?
Well I guess they go through phases of focus, but they are always interlinked. Now I would say I'm “50/50” coach and researcher conducting my own research with my students.
6. Why do you like HRV as a sports science parameter?
In the time I have been involved in HRV there has been a massive evolution. At the start it was really hard to take HRV (e.g with a good HR belt) over long periods. But now it’s super easy, with 1 min recording and using just your camera on your phone. So the cost (in terms of time) is super low, and the benefit is really high. One of the main things I like is that it's all encompassing, in that it’s a global marker of stress. It goes beyond training, so if you’re having a stressful time of work/life it will pick it up. From the TRIQ perspective, this all affects your ability to train and adapt.
7. What do you think the future holds for metrics like HRV and what are some other metrics you are currently interested in?
HRV keeps getting better as we understand it more. At the moment a great leap forward is also in the use of HRV during exercise to detect training thresholds. Currently I’ve been using continuous blood glucose monitoring a lot (CGM). This is also really useful for fueling, monitoring training adaptation and also inflammation and potentially overload/overreaching.
8. Many sports science studies revolve around professional athletes and testing them in a controlled environment. What do you feel are the main differences between pros and recreational athletes and what are important aspects to keep in mind when comparing them?
That’s not true, most research is done in recreationally trained or well trained athletes. It’s hard to get professional athletes in the lab. Professional athletes are easy to assess as generally their physiology is more stable. That said, physiology is physiology and there is always crossover no matter what the level of athlete. The basic principles apply. At the end of the day when it comes to coaching athletes in the real world, it’s always a build-measure-learn loop—meaning that we build a program, monitor the athlete, learn and refine the program.
9. There are a lot of learnings recreational athletes seem to be able to gain from looking at studies with the pros. Is there any way you could see it be the other way around and pros learning from recreationals now that TRIQ will open and optimize triathlon training for so many more people?
The good thing is TRIQ will offer big data sets, this is where things can be learned rather than them being “recreational” and that being the factor. We now have the opportunity to look at the responses (physiologically) of many athletes on a large scale. This is going to be very powerful when it comes to looking at how to optimize training programs.
10. Can you tell us about a few studies you’ve found interesting lately that you think hint at new areas of endurance sports science that you fell should be explored further? Maybe 3 studies?
There have been two studies recently that showed athletes have poor glucose tolerance during periods of overload training, specifically when the overload comes for high-intensity training. This means BG levels will increase during this period. As I’m so interested in CGM this is really interesting for me. This is seen at the same time as mitochondrial dysfunction.
An area that we are investigating in our lab at the moment is centred around pre-exercise feeding. And we’re finding that the main thing that seems to affect substrate use (fat vs carbohydrates) during exercise is the amount of fat someone has in their diet, rather than the number of carbohydrates. This is really interesting and flies in the face of common belief. It also has some great practical applications for athletes who do ultra-endurance sports where having a high-fat metabolism is important.
11. If you had to sell a teenager the career of a sports scientist, what would be the most spectacular scientific moments of your sports science career that you would mention to them?
Well at the end of the day, I think it doesn't matter what the job is, it’s all about doing what you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about sport and understanding physiology (or whatever the area), then you’re always on to a winner. But if you’re not into it, it will never be a great job. But lots are people are passionate about sport. There are also great opportunities to meet and work with athletes who are just inspirational. You get to see a lot too, especially if you go to international competitions. I was fortunate enough to go to the London and Rio Olympic Games.
12. With more and more hardware sensors and advanced data analytics software available by the minute, how do you feel that will change sports science in the years to come? What would be your dream scenario to research things that you’ve always wanted to know and couldn’t yet?
The main thing will be to really individualize training based on data and the response of athletes. We simply aren't very good at this yet. For example, knowing which athletes respond best to low, or high intensity training; or different volumes/loads. Really individualizing these variables based on the data knowing it will have a great impact on the athletes will be really beneficial.
13. At TRIQ we have an awesome team of advisors in you, Dr. Ruby Otter-Drost and Dr. Stephen Seiler. How do your different areas of expertise intersect?
Both have vast experience in the world of sports science. We all have different experiences, but then again there is a lot of crossover as well. We all come with a strong background in endurance sports and monitoring, but we have all just focussed more specifically on in given areas. I know that when we all get together we will certainly have some fruitful discussions, and really bring forward the area training and performance.
14. In regards to the TRIQ app which will accompany many athletes in their daily triathlon training and directly intertwine their daily recovery and prescribed intensity—what do you think we might be able to learn and study in terms of sports science from this new and unique performance data?
Really understanding the individual recovery rates of athletes is the holy grail when it comes to prescribing training and ensuring training sessions are appropriately placed. As this is what we do with the TRIQ app, this is going to be a huge leap forward in the prescription of exercise based on wearable technology. Of course there are loads of other things the TRIQ app does as well. As a coach, you really want to ensure your athletes complete every session as it should be to the best of their potential. This is what our intertwining of daily recovery and prescribed intensity is attempting to achieve.
15. We assume that many of your studies have involved yourself as a test subject. Can you tell us a few instances that stand out where you were especially excited to be both endurance athlete and sports scientist?
I think one of the reasons I’m always a popular choice as a supervisor is because I also make a good subject. But I’ve done it all. One springs to mind was a 3 week heat acclimation training study we did in Kona. Not a bad thing to have to do! Go to Kona, train in the heat, and then look at the acclimation response. Awesome! There were a few things I had to do pre and post (that many people wouldn’t do)—but all in the name of science!
16. Looking at sports science from a meta perspective, do you feel there are any new trends emerging currently that could shape the scene in the coming years (aside from studying the effects of the pandemic)?
As mentioned CGM is one and becoming increasingly popular. The other is big data and machine learning. Basically what we’re doing at TRIQ, using data to really inform training decisions. I know there are a few companies and groups to make this a reality, and it's an exciting race to 1. see who can get there first and 2. (more importantly) see who can do this properly.
17. How do you keep up with the latest sports science developments? What do you read, how much do you read, how do you structure your reading and manage to maintain a good overview?
I have good students! They are always keeping me up to date with what is going on. Other than that, my online courses also help. Building courses is a great way to research and ensure you’re up to date with current research. In addition, Pubmed is a great place to start, you can set up alerts to get notifications when new research in areas of interest is released.
18. If you were an aspiring sports scientist in 2021 where would you like to study and why?
I wish I could code and look at long term wearable data to inform training. I actually have a PhD student starting to look at this very area. This is also, of course, something similar to what we do at TRIQ. I guess if I can’t do it myself, I still get to live vicariously through my students and colleagues :)
19. In 2030, what could be the topics of two endurance sports science studies you couldn’t wait to read?
- We still have no idea how much fat plays a role in energy production at a high intensity. The current methods are really only useful to about 80% of VO2max. If someone could create a method to measure fat usage at high intensity exercise properly, I could not wait to read that study.
- I’m really interested in aging and specifically NAD+ boosting. Getting into this will be way beyond this interview, but if you can boost that really effectively it will have prolific results on how well we age. If there was a study that demonstrated a method to substantially increase NAD+ I would love to read that study.