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Alistair Brownlee — lessons in athlete welfare

AuthorsLydia Edgar

8 min read


Alistair Brownlee and Lydia Edgar

Athlete welfare is a term with many meanings and interpretations. From physical and psychological wellbeing to integrity, inclusion and safeguarding, it’s a concept that’s becoming ever more important and mainstream — especially following recent backlash against media obligations and the treatment of young sports stars like darts sensation Luke Littler.

Who better to speak to on this subject than someone who has excelled at the highest levels of athletic performance — double Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee MBE.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Alistair ahead of our State of Play sport conference, where we were joined by an exciting line-up of speakers from across the world of sport at the Etihad Stadium.

Here are some of the key takeaways from our conversation, which you can watch in full below.

Watch the full conversation

Alistair Brownlee

Finding your balance

Athlete welfare has a diverse and all-encompassing meaning. The simplest definition that I would give is removing barriers and providing support to allow athletes to perform to the best of their abilities and live the healthiest lives that they possibly can. Another aspect that interests me personally is how athletes interact with post-career planning — for example, how they look after their finances.

This is very topical at the moment, with people talking about the balance between high athletic performance and functioning effectively outside of sport. While it’s something of a cliché, it’s true that athletes have to be ‘selfish’ — excluding everything else in life — to be elite at sport. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to be that way the whole time, so our focus should be on developing well-rounded people. 

Whenever I need to be fully focused in a training session, I put absolutely all that I can mentally and physically into that — whether it’s for ten minutes or multiple hours — but outside of that, I made sure to study, have business interests and engage in other hobbies. For other people, this might simply be finding ways to relax and unwind. It may also be important to have a good social life. Ultimately, athlete welfare is very personal and each individual needs to find the best balance for them outside of their focus on sport.


Mexico 2016 — the physical toll on endurance athletes

Being an endurance athlete is definitely, at times, a very lonely pursuit. That’s part of the appeal to some of us weirdos who do it and some of the people who watch it as well. However, what most people don’t see is that when you stand on the start line of any event — even in an individual pursuit — you have a massive team of people behind you to help you get there. This might be your coach, manager, sports scientist, physio, masseur and doctor, but it also could be less obvious people like training partners, family, friends, partners and nutritionists. A major motivator for my training — when you’re doing around three sessions each day — is to have that social aspect in place. Being able to go out and meet friends — or in my case, Jonny — to train with is so important. If it’s raining or you just don’t fancy going out that day, the fact that your little brother is doing his own training is going to motivate you pretty well. So, the aspect of community and having a supportive network around you is really important.

There can be a fine line between performance and pushing things too far. This has happened to both me and Jonny a few times throughout our careers. I can’t really have a conversation about athlete welfare without recalling Mexico 2016. That was the last race of the year — I had won the Olympic Games and Jonny was about to win the World Championship. During the race, I was running round in second or third place, thinking this is the perfect end to the year — I’m an Olympic Champion, Jonny’s a World Champion — I was looking forward to that first cold beer after crossing the finish line in very hot conditions. As I ran round the last corner, I saw Jonny stumbling into the official and just grabbed him — without any real time to make that decision — and started dragging him towards the finish line. 

What people may not realise is that this was preceded by a long period of time suffering with heat illnesses and collapsing on courses. I had an event a few years earlier in Australia where Jonny had a heat episode a few hundred metres from the finish line. When I caught up with him five minutes later (because I was having a very bad race), he had effectively been left on a stretcher outside in the sun with no medical treatment. We had to push to get him the support he needed. I think that they didn’t have the right amount of ice and water to hand, which is very dangerous because at that point your core temperature can be significantly raised — perhaps even over 41 degrees. It gets so hot to the point where your body shuts down and your peripheral circulation effectively acts as an insulator to your core that just gets warmer and warmer. You need to start cooling people fast to prevent long-term damage. 

This really piqued my interest in athlete welfare. Thankfully, Jonny recovered and I read the World Triathlon Rules’ guidelines around what was called ‘heat provision for hot races’. This contained sensible provisions — so it’s all about how these are applied. I wanted to make the point that every race must stick to these rules.

When it came to Mexico, obviously all of that was in my mind — and the race had already been moved because the conditions were so hot there. Seeing Jonny collapse, my first instinct was to just grab him and get him towards the finish line — which is where I knew that good medical treatment would be available.


Recent developments in athlete welfare

One of the groups that I sit on for the International Olympic Committee is around extreme weather. Looking at Paris 2024, we’re taking this very seriously. A lot of the endurance events are scheduled for early morning or later in the day to avoid any issues with heat. There’s also lots of room for mitigation if there’s the potential for extreme conditions. 

I know that World Triathlon has projects on the go designed to track athletes’ physiological signs and variables in real time during races, which is really exciting step forward. However, on a more philosophical and perhaps legal point — once you start collecting data and see potentially risky data, what do you do with it? If an official came up to me and said that your core temperature is looking at bit high  you’ve only got one kilometre left in an Olympic race but you need to get off the course — I’d probably be telling them to go somewhere. So, we’ll have to see where this all leads to.

Throughout my own career, I was always looking for an advantage to see if some new innovation would help me. I always had a strict ‘golden rule’ with anything that if I was collecting any data that didn’t change what I did tomorrow I just stopped collecting it. We shouldn’t innovate for innovation’s sake — only to try to make real gains and progress.

At Brownlee Fitness, we’re all about democratising the best endurance training knowledge and approach to as big an audience as possible. We want to make the biggest differences in athletes’ fitness to help them achieve their goals. Ask Al is also providing a layer of ability to advise anyone on anything in the health and fitness market.


The role of technology

Technology will have a big impact on athlete welfare, particularly in terms of data usage to help training, prescription and augmentation. Almost all athletes now use wearables in some shape or form. When collecting data, we then have to store and analyse it. We can also now use big data AI models to try and predict the likelihood of injuries or specific types of training that might be more effective.

Judging in sports is another fascinating area that may be affected by technology. However, there is concern among international federations about biases. 

Ultimately, data privacy and athlete’s ownership of data is something that we’re going to see many more conversations around in the next few years.


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Lydia Edgar

Lydia is a Partner in our employment and pensions team and leads our sport sector team.

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Lydia Edgar

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