Department for Health

Improving human function

Understanding the mechanisms underlying impaired, fundamental and expert human function, we use this knowledge to create, apply, and evaluate interventions to enhance functional performance across a number of sporting, occupational, and clinical domains.

The Improving Human Function research focuses on a broad range of sport, clinical, and occupational populations. Our goal is to conduct significant research to understand the limits and then to realise the potential of human physiological, motor and cognitive function and organisational performance. Our research operates at multiple levels - basic science studies aim to develop an understanding of fundamental mechanisms, whilst applied and implementation studies focus on the evaluation of whole-body responses and group/population effects. Our research approach is multi- and inter-disciplinary in nature and is based on a number of core disciplines, including biomechanics, pedagogy, physiology, and psychology.

We value our close working relationships with key stakeholder partners who are involved in all aspects of our research – on steering groups, as participants, and as funders. These close working relationships improve the quality of our research outputs and accelerate the translation of the research into policy and practice, an aspect of our research that we pay very close attention to.

The research within the Improving Human Function theme is currently streamed through two main research clusters, with a number of exciting emerging research topics also becoming established. In the Enhancing Sport Performance cluster we aim to understand the factors influencing sports performance and intervene at technique, training, coaching, nutritional, and organisational levels to improve athletic performance. The Injury & Illness Prevention cluster captures the scale of the morbidity due to injury/illness in sport performers and personnel employed in arduous occupations, establishes the risk factors, and then develops and evaluates interventions to reduce the burden of injuries/illness in our focus populations. These interventions may be at the level of physical preparation, equipment, workload, rehabilitation methods, or policy/rule changes. Our Emerging Research Topics represent some of the newer research directions that our theme is targeting for growth.

Enhancing sport performance

Why do we research this area?

Performance sport is big business, major events generate huge exposure and public interest, and elite sport conceivably has the potential to encourage community participation in organised sport and physical activity.

Research on sports performance and consequent knowledge transfer to inform coaches' and athletes’ understanding of performance is one way to boost athletes’/teams’ chances of success in competition. Likewise, understanding how the approach of individuals such as coaches and the organisational structures which surround sport can operate to facilitate a successful and nurturing climate can also have implications for performances and participation.

Such research requires consideration of the multiple factors which influence performance. These range from understanding the fundamental principles underlying the technical performance and movement efficiency, to managing the psychological stressors that performers encounter when training and competing in sport, to devising effective nutritional intervention strategies, to optimising the athlete development, coaching and sport organisation climate. Developing a clearer understanding of these considerations and others will aid attempts to improve elite performance.

What do we do?

Our research aims to identify the critical features which influence performance in sport and investigates interventions to improve or optimise performance. To achieve this we employ a range of methodologies, including biomechanical assessments of technique, qualitative methods (interviews, focus groups, photo elicitation), growth/maturation assessments, development and validation of psychometric testing in sport, mixed-method examinations of performers’ experiences, sport environments, organisations, and global competitions, longitudinal monitoring of athletes and their development, and trials to assess the performance effects from training and nutritional interventions.

Examples of our research 

Injury and illness prevention

Why do we research this area?

Injuries and illnesses represent the biggest cause of morbidity and training time lost in demanding occupations and sport. This carries a substantial cost to both individuals and organisations. Sport injuries are also the leading reason for A&E hospital admissions in youth and younger adult populations. Evidence-based approaches to reduce or prevent the burden of injury and illness are therefore needed.

What do we do?

Following established cyclical frameworks for researching injury/illness prevention and working in a range of different environments, our research aims to: understand the scale of the injury or illness problem in any given context; identify the independent risk factors; and, then develop and evaluate primary or secondary prevention strategies to reduce the burden of injuries or illness. Our research also focuses on strategies to improve the rehabilitation and longer-term management of injuries and illnesses. Our research methodologies include: injury/illness surveillance studies, risk factor analyses, laboratory / field-based / in silico biomechanical analysis, in vivo assessments of muscle (dys)function, RCTs to evaluate interventions, longitudinal mixed-methods monitoring of fitness and rehabilitation markers.

Examples of our research