A former world-class kayaker, sports physiologist Ken van Someren now leads a human performance lab outside London for the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). After a 20-mile bike ride to the office, he spends his workdays helping elite athletes perform better on the rugby pitch, Tour de France, and glaciers of Antarctica. He talked with STAT about his views on ice baths, when to eat protein, and what we can learn from people who push their physical limits.

What does a human performance lab do?

We want to innovate and extend not just our own, but the scientific community’s understanding of human function and human performance.

What kind of athletes do you work with?

Rich Parks, an ex-rugby player, who attempted the world record going solo to the South Pole about 18 months ago. [He came in second.] When you have someone traveling across Antarctica, in an incredibly hostile environment, with a massive physiological and psychological strain, it affords a genuine and very unique opportunity to better understand human ability. He’s a role model who transcends science, sports, news, culture, etc. To have the opportunity to work with people like that is incredibly rewarding.

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Can studying someone who is so exceptional help you understand more typical people? 

I’m a big believer that we can use the athlete as a model to prod and push the system and better understand what it’s capable of.

Can you give a specific example of how what you learn in athletes can carry over to others?

If we want to optimize strength gain or muscle mass, the optimal protein strategy is five to six feeds a day with 20 to 30 grams [per meal], depending on your body mass and what you’re doing. If we’re looking at an aging population who are or should be desperately trying to offset [muscle and bone loss] through physical activity and getting their activity right, it probably becomes even more important to them to — not to get bigger and stronger — but to maintain function and independence, quality of life and so on.

Are there things that athletes have been doing that are counterproductive, that research can prove wrong?

Maybe five years ago, everyone was jumping into ice baths after training. ‘It has to be good. I can now train harder, and harder, and more, and more.’ But actually, when you start looking at performance, they’re not getting better faster than the people who aren’t using ice baths, or compared to what they were doing before they started taking them. Rather than training better, are they training really stupidly?

You retired from kayaking in 1999. What do you do now for exercise? 

I did a cycling trip last year to the French Alps. There’s a lovely challenge, going up Mont Ventoux three times in one day. You’ve got [the] best part of 25 kilometers of climbing [three times]. It took me an hour and three-quarters, which is very pedestrian compared to anyone who’s good, but it’s incredibly good fun in a sadistic kind of way. I enjoy working hard, trying to beat all of my mates and applying a little of my knowledge of nutrition, pacing, and warmup to get a little bit of an edge.

Did you win?

I did actually, yes.

Ken van Someren is director of research and development for the GSK Human Performance Lab in London, as well as a visiting professor at St. Mary’s University in London and Northumbria University. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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