Published: Aug. 29, 2016 By

Two-year, Pac-12 Conference grant aims to learn not just how to help athletes perform but also how to keep them healthy

In what may be a first-ever exhaustive health study of intercollegiate student-athletes, a team of CU Boulder researchers will gauge not only athletes’ fitness but also their general well-being.

Matt McQueen

Matt McQueen

“Certain athletic departments will carry out their own assessments during their respective seasons, or among different domains, such as studying concussions,” said Matt McQueen, director of CU Boulder’s Public Health Program.

“But I have not seen a study of this depth,” he said, noting that researchers aim to get a snapshot of a wide range of health data “to generate new hypotheses or perhaps new interventions.”

The two-year, $750,000 study is funded by the Pac-12 Conference. It began this month with the arrival of first-year student-athletes in varsity sports including football, soccer and volleyball.

Those freshmen athletes undergo pre-participation evaluation physicals, and McQueen and his team is asking them to undergo further testing to gather important baseline data, such how long it takes them to adapt to Boulder’s altitude.

CU Boulder, which is one of four Pac-12 member universities whose expertise was selected for funding, is in a unique position for that aspect of the study. One of the team’s researchers, Professor Bill Byrnes in integrative physiology, directs a lab that can measure hydration levels and cardio capacity through comparisons of hemoglobin mass versus hemoglobin concentration.

Researchers will gauge athletes’ fitness and general well-being.

Freshmen student athletes are tested during on-boarding for athletic programs at CU Boulder. CU Boulder athletes have the option of participating in comprehensive health studies during the course of their student careers and beyond funded by grants from the Pac-12. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)


But while much of the data might interest coaches seeking maximal athletic performance, the study is focused on the overall, long-term health of the athletes.

“Healthier athletes do tend to be better-performing athletes, but this is not a football study. This is not a track study. A lot of research goes into shaving seconds off times in those sports,” McQueen said. “This is about all our student-athletes—male and female. These are athletes competing in the Pac-12, and there’s a lot of pressure on them to perform at an optimal level.

“We want to aggressively pursue gaps in this area of research, such as overheating in female athletes. We know that muscle fatigue leads to injury, but what can we do to help prevent that?”

The study will extrapolate from data already collected by sport physicians, trainers and nutritionists, who are also important participants in the CU Boulder study. McQueen said he hopes the study ultimately includes all 350 CU Boulder scholarship athletes, and much of the data will come from simple questionnaires concerning their perceived overall health, well-being, stress, cognition and sleep patterns.

McQueen said he hopes the study can follow some student-athletes as they move into starting roles or even graduate.

Filling in many of the data gaps in this picture, and creating clearly defined and inclusive baseline data, will also require physical measurements, such as the blood biometrics. Other data will be collected through wearable sensors to study core temperatures during training and competition and the sleep habits of students during and after competitive seasons end.

The two-year, $750,000 study is funded by the Pac-12 Conference.

Theresa Hernandez, psychology professor and associate dean for research in the College of Arts and Sciences, explains a voluntary Pac-12 health and wellness study at the Coors Events Center. Freshmen student athletes interested in participating are consented prior to being asked to fill out surveys during on-boarding for athletic programs at CU Boulder. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The study will also address how these athletes adapt to changing elevations and weather conditions of competitions, plus what can be challenging competition schedules. “For instance, we will probably take a long look at how traveling to the West Coast and competing at night strains sleep habits,” McQueen said.

Injuries, especially concussive injuries, will be examined. However, health indicators prior to injuries, perhaps as simple as a sprained ankle, and how the students adjusted to injury, are also of concern in the “big-picture perspective,” McQueen said.

McQueen is an associate professor in the Integrative Physiology Department, but his expertise in epidemiology gives the research grounding in studying special populations and data integration. Byrnes will provide expertise in athlete response to altitude and hydration.

Healthier athletes do tend to be better-performing athletes, but this is not a football study. This is not a track study. A lot of research goes into shaving seconds off times in those sports."

From the CU department of Sports Medicine, both Dr. Sourav Poddar and Miguel Rueda, the associate athletic director for health and performance, are participating in the study. Theresa Hernandez, who is professor of psychology and neuroscience and of physical medicine and rehabilitation, as well as the associate dean for research in the College of Arts & Sciences, will be involved in assessing cognition, health, well-being and stress. Ken Wright, professor of integrative physiology, will provide expertise in sleep physiology.

McQueen said team doctors, trainers and nutritionists have been interested in participating with the research. “What I think is unique is the whole athletic department has been wide open and supportive,” he said.

“They see the utility of this study,” he said. “This is something that will be very innovative, as we are all bringing our expertise to the table.”

Additionally, researchers will collaborate with Stanford University Professor Craig Heller, an expert in the effect of core temperature on athletic performance, to develop strategies to translate the research findings into better clinical practices, improving the overall health, wellness and athletic performance of Pac-12 student-athletes.

But McQueen hopes the baseline data gathered in this study will only whet the appetite of researchers for getting even more data on a unique student population.

Jeff Thomas is Lafayette-based freelance writer and a 1983 graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder.