Alan in the test chamber

Podcast: Catching up with Dr Alan Richardson

The school’s Dr Alan Richardson talks about his upcoming research which is a call for volunteers running the Brighton Marathon.

Alan also talks about his extensive work with the fire service.

Listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ in the link below. Alternatively, most of the interview is transcribed below.

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Hello. Thanks for downloading this University of Brighton podcast. I am Richard Newman and this week we have been speaking to Dr Alan Richardson from the School of Sport and Service Management. Alan’s research focuses on the phsiological changes and human tolerance to severe environmental exposure. He’s asking for people who are running the Brighton Marathon to come forward to take part in some research measuring core temperature during a marathon. So we talk about that, and how to get involved, as well as his extensive work with the fire service.

So I’ve been at the university a while now, I currently teach physiology, mainly execise physiology to largely sports and exercise-science students, but also sports coaching and physical education, and physical education with QTS.

And you’ve been at the university for quite a while?

For 12 years.

It goes way back. So can you bring us up to speed on your career?

So I did my undergraduate at Brighton and I then went on to do a PHD, again at Brighton, although part of that was at the university college London. I did my PHD on hypoxic tolerance, so how people tolerate altitude and why some people don’t tolerate altitude very well and why they get ill. And part of that was working with Extreme Everest, which is, as it sounds, a large medical expedition in 2007 to Everest. So I was in the middle of my PHD but I finished up here in Brighton and then went straight into to lecturing here. I did a bit of time whilst doing my PHD in London as a clinical physiologist which is essentially doing cardiopulmonary exercise tests so maximal exercise tests on patients that were going to undergo surgery to sort of determine whether they were suitable to go into surgery. That was back in 2007, 2008 and now it’s got quite big. A lot of Hospitals are doing that now and it’s becoming progressively more a job to do. Most hospitals will probably be doing it in maybe 5-10 years time.

We’re going to talk about your research first. We’ll split into two, we’ll talk about some of your sport focused stuff and then some of your main research about the fire service. But we’ll start with the sport bit because it’s a bit of a call-to-action for anyone getting involved with the Brighton Marathon to undergo some research, isn’t it?

Yes. So this year and every year, for the last four years, we’ve done an annual research project with the Brighton marathons. We work really closely with the medical team. So we’ve done a project on cardiac injury. We’ve done a project on renal function in marathon runners. And this year we’re doing one on hypothermia and how that affects the person’s health, so we’re measuring core temperature and heart rate and and comparing that to their cardiopulmonary exercise fitness and also taking blood samples before and after the marathon to look at things like inflammation and endotoxemia, just to see how the person has responded to getting hotter or to getting hypothermia.

Is that quite a common thing for endurance sports?

It can be a reason people collapse. So many people that do collapse are usually hypothermic once they collapse. I mean it’s not necessarily quite so common in a colder country, but let’s say during the Tokyo Olympics or you know, an event in say Qatar, that could be much more of a common occurrence. But if we take the Brighton marathon two to three years ago, when it was really warm, there was a huge number of hypothermic cases. It can just be a randomly hot day, but people still can get hot during marathons, even in a sort of thermal-neutral environment.

What are you hoping to find or expecting to find from the research? And what can be actioned from that potentially?

So we would expect to see a number of people getting hotter. Clearly, it’s interesting to see how hot they are actually getting and whether that’s related to whether they are working harder or if they’re working longer, what maybe predetermines people to getting hotter during a marathon, whether it’s their previous training or previous experience with marathon running and then secondary to that or alongside that, we’re interested in seeing the ones that get hotter, what are they experiencing? Are they experiencing more inflammation? Are they experiencing issues with their gut, potentially endotoxemia for the people that are experiencing hypothermia? So there were a number of different questions from it, really.

So you’re asking for volunteers to come forward. What do people need to do if they want to come forward? And what would they be sort of giving up and having to do?

So the ones that are running the Brighton Marathon, it would be fantastic if you could take part in the research. So if you wanted to take part there are a couple of things you need to do, you need to provide a blood sample before, so when you go and pick up your race number at the event and then immediately after the race, or if you live locally, particularly in the Brighton and Eastbourne area, we’d love you to come and do a VO2 Max test, which is about a 10 – 15 minute run to maximum and also to swallow a core temperature pill, and have that in whilst you’re doing the race and again provide a blood sample before and after. And from that, we can tell you how fit you are, how hard you are working during the race, how hot you go. If you want to take part you can just email me, it’s a.j.Richardson@Brighton.ac.uk. Or you can get me on Twitter @AlanRichardson_.

You’ve obviously got a good relationship with the Brighton Marathon having done the research in the past. How productive have those previous projects been?

Well, the first study we did on cardiac injury actually produced three papers; the two original research papers and a review paper. The one on renal function, one under review and another one in production, we’re still analysing some of the urins from that study from a year ago. It takes a long time to do research.

Loads of more samples coming your way, as well?

Yeah.

Staying with physical activity, I know that you’ve talked about some of your work with altitude training. It’s just interesting to get your view on this, I guess, because we’re looking at quite a lot of elite athletes that will be preparing to go to the Olympics this year. There’ll be doing altitude training around now. For someone that doesn’t know that much about it, how much benefit will altitude training have but at the same time would every elite athlete suit it?

Well, these are two good questions there. Generally it’s believed that altitude training does work. Generally, that may not be the same for everyone so it’s hard to put a number on how much it’s actually going to improve the person by. Let’s say you’re a super early athlete, let’s say you’re Mo Farah, if he could get a half-a-percent improvement as a result of doing altitude training then he’s gonna take it. For a normal everyday person it might improve them by maybe a couple of percent. It’s hard to say. So to your second question of who suits it, you don’t really know until you get there. You know, you might not be very tolerant to altitude and it might make you ill if you go too high. So you might get gastrointestinal symptoms and might feel a bit sick, bit nauseous, quite lethargic and therefore, you’re probably not going to be able to train as hard and therefore you’re going to get sort of a negative training and and altitude training actually becomes a negative thing. And the whole thing with altitude training is actually if you go too high, you can’t train as hard or as fast and then you might not get the benefits as if you were just training at sea level. So there is this whole live high, train low, without getting too long into this, but the idea is that you live high maybe maybe two and a half, three thousand metres and then train slightly lower than that so you can work slightly harder when you’re doing the training and get the benefit from it there.

All right. And I guess from your research you’ve done in the past, taking away from an elite level, but talking about general tolerance, what sort of percentage of our population do you think just doesn’t get on with altitude?

It’s such a grey area because it’s how high is high. You know, if we were all to flying to kilimanjaro and then getting another flight to Lukla and start walking the Everest Basecamp trail, which is a really common thing, and lot of people do that every year, you’d probably find that maybe 25-30% of people will get some kind of acute mountain sickness. Certainly they’ll get some kind of headache. Whereas if we did Kilimanjaro because it’s a faster ascent rate, you’ll find that figure might be 50%, maybe even higher. It’s a really grey area because it’s depends on how fast you you are walking up the hill, as in how quickly you are ascending the mountain, how many days you’re doing it over, how many rest days you’re doing it, how hard you are working, so what you are carrying, how fast you are walking. It’s really difficult to put a number on because there’s so many things that are not set up. But I’d say, depending on what you are doing, probably between 25-40% of people get it, depending on what you’re actually physically doing.

It’s part of that research, of you being at that altitude?

Yeah, a lot. Yeah.

How did you get on?

Oh, I’m pretty good at it actually. Over at the University of Brighton labs, over in Eastbourne, we have this really cool hypoxic chamber, so that goes to where it’s 11% oxygen, which is around about four-and-a-half to 5000 meters and I spent a lot of my PHD in there, testing people for hours, I think I developed some kind of hypoxic tolerance, at altutude training, and then having to go to Everest and spend probably three or four months between nuptse, which is at three thousand five hundred, and and Everest base camp, which is at five thousand three hundred meters, you develop quite a good altitude tolerance over that time. I guess I didn’t have a problem with altitude.

Okay. Let’s move on to your main research at the moment, with the fire service. What sort of thing were you looking at?

So I’ve been working with the fire service for about eight years now and they first approached me because they were concerned about how much their fire instructors were doing. And so everyone’s aware of what a firefighter does. They go into the fire, they put it out. But a normal firefighter probably sees maybe one fire a month, maybe two at a push from the research we’ve done. Whereas a fire instructor, they are the ones that train the firefighters and they may do anything between sort of 10 to about 35 exposures a month. And that’s a lot of time in fires. And they’re the ones that can actually get ill from overworking, overtraining response, overstress response. Because when you are going into a fire, you get an increase in your core temperature and your heart rate, so your core temperature might go up to about thirty eight and a half to thirty nine degrees. You know, your heart rate is going to be raised for that whole time and an exposre might last about 40 minutes. If a normal person was to do 40 minutes most days of the week at thirty eight and a half degrees, they wouldn’t feel very well and so we’ve had fire instructors reporting symptoms of like broken sleep, random heavy sweating, muscle cramps, sweating out soot, really bad mood swings. So what we’ve been trying to do is show whether this is isolated to fire instructors as a result of what they’re doing in their working environment and trying to evidence how much they should be doing, because a fire instructor has to teach a firefighter, from all over the world, what to do to put out a fire but how much should they be doing? And this kind of relates to other tasks, you might have nuclear power workers or construction workers. How much should they be working? Are they doing too much? Would that start affecting their health? It’s interesting because I say I teach sports science and I did that as a degree, but I don’t really do much for sport anymore and it is amazing how much sports science or physiology translates to lots of things in life. Now, I’d consider myself as a physiologist now and it relates to occupational and stress responses and medical disease states. It is all sorts of things. And a student might think that they were going to sport science and they see the obvious side of it, in football and rugby and athletics, but I find a lot of the students get really interested the things that they might not have thought of when they first come to university, like occupational exposure of riot police and firefighters and miners or people that are having extreme stress as a result of their job or their lifestyle.

I guess it seems like it’s sort of taken hold of you as well if it’s been going on for eight years now?

I just like it cause you see the impact of it. You know, you work with the firefighters and the instructors and they’re clearly interested. They want to know how this is affecting their health. And this is currently a big thing all over the world right now, particularly regarding cancer risk and firefighting and the contaminants they might see. We’re all aware that the fire generates a smoke and the smoke contains certain contaminants and depending on what you burning it’s got different contaminants in it, but we’re not sure how much goes into firefighters. There’s been quite a bit of evidence that there’s contaminants getting its firefighters, certain contaminants, but we’re not sure necessarily whether that’s directly going to cause cancer. Is there a greater cancer risk if you are getting contamination? There is this sort of provisional work in America being done in Sweden and Canada but it is very hard to evidence that. I get emails from firefighters saying “I’ve been doing it for 30 years and now I have cancer and is this a result of my job” and it is almost impossible to say as there’s so many confounding factors in people’s lives about why they’re getting ill because what they’ve done in their life and as much as I’d love to respond to them and help them in some way research takes a long time and it is really hard to evidence certain things. Hopefully someone in the future will be able to say or find ways of reducing potential contamination of occupational workers to these sorts of things.

That’s quite hard e-mail to receive?

Yeah, I read about probably 10-15 emails as a result of things I’ve written or TV programs, especially off the BBC program. It’s really hard to deal with because I’d love to give them the answer that they want to hear, it’s because of this or that, but it’s impossible to say. There has been evidence collected in America using huge epidemiological studies on thousands and thousands of people to show that there’s a greater incidence of certain cancers in X firefighters or certain occupational workers, but there’s just not enough evidence on those kind of things yet for me to say that that could happen.

Coming back though to your successful research so far, what are some of the key findings that you have found during this time that have really made a significant impact?

So, I guess one of the recent ones we’ve finished is looking at the number of exposures the instructors are doing and demonstrating the ones that are doing more than about 10 a month. So we compared firefighters and instructors and showed that the ones that are doing about 10 a month are at greater risk of having raised the inflammatory responses, maybe some kind of immunosuppression, but generally the response of ill health, let’s say. So there is a limit on what we should really be allowing our instructors to do. Again, really difficult to evidence, though, because people have different lifestyles and someone might be eating well or doing lots of exercise, so you need big groups to compare between. But yeah, that’s probably one of the bigger ones. We’ve also demonstrated things like precooling of firefighters and fire instructors. We’re looking at ways of physiologically monitoring firefighters and instructors. So let’s say you put in a new recruit into a fire for the first time, we don’t know how they’re going to respond to that fire. They might be quite anxious. They might not be very good. They’re not a very good thermal tolerance. So you really want to know how they’re responding to that. So there’s technology trying to develop ways of measuring cool temperature and heart rate and identify the recruits that aren’t doing so well and get them out before they do get ill. Because, you know, although a firefighter has to put out a fire in a training environment, they shouldn’t be put through too much stress, and so there’s there’s various bits being done to try and bring into policy how we deal with recruits and instructors in training environments, how to keep people safer.

How much do the fire service take this on board and put it into practice?

So we’ve we’ve been working with the Fire Brigades Union and also a company called Beach Designs, a media company. We got funding for a Union learn, which we made a package called the Heat Illness Prevention and Awareness Training. So it’s available via the FBU, The Fire Brigade Union’s website, and it’s a training package for all firefighters in the UK on how to deal with heat stress, heat injuries, to try and keep them safer, when they’re dealing with a fire, particularly in fire training episodes where you control things a bit better and look after your welfare more but what firefighters and fire instructors and recruits can do to help themselves. And the package is really cool, actually. There are incredible videos of teaching firefighters so the recruits know the physiology of how they’re dealing with stress, what’s actually happening to their bodies and how they can help themselves.

Let’s return to your teaching very quickly. Is it something you still really enjoy doing? I read that you try and make things a little bit different if you can.

I really like teaching, that’s why I’m here, let’s be honest. I really enjoy teaching, particularly the big groups. I like to try and make lectures entertaining. So sometimes with Physiology it’s difficult to get some of the more challenging principles across and try and make it fun, particularly on sport and exercise science, we’ve got some really good labs and we try to make them really hands on and people get involved. I find that by students actually getting involved and taking part and having the opportunity to play with the equipment and take measurements, they’re going to learn much more than me standing at the front, talking for an hour. So we try and get them in the labs as much as possible. They get a lot of lab time at the University of Brighton and I think it really helps with their learning. There’s obviously a lot of universities that offer Sports Sciences now and students might get wooed by some really fancy labs that they might see but do they use them all the time and there’s a lot of labs that you see that are for research only, whereas at the university we have these labs that are all for teaching and teaching takes priority, which is fantastic actually.

And we still have some fantastic facilities?

So we’ve got heat chambers that goes from -10 degrees to +50 degrees. We’ve got the hypoxic chamber, I mentioned earlier, so that goes to 11% oxygen, so about 4 and a 1/2 to 5000 meters. We’ve got the biochemical labs. We’ve got two physiology labs, a biomechanics lab. We’ve got the brand new strength and conditioning gym. That’s just for our strength conditioning and our sports science students and also for physiotherapy and health.

That looks like something straight out of the Premier League football?

Yeah. It is. It really is. There’s a great gym anyway on the Eastbourne site that we did have for our strength conditioning and it’s got drop-down screens where we did the lectures, a running track through it. That’s fantastic on its own. But now we’ve got a dedicated teaching space as well as that. It’s got ice kinetic rigs in it. You know, the people see them and they think that looks alright and they don’t realize they’re like ninety thousand pounds. It’s a really cool facility.

We end every podcast with some quick fire questions away from your work just to get to know you a bit better. For the first one, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I didn’t go to a particularly great school and where I went there was no sort of expectation on you and I’d probably say aim higher. I had very little career advice. It was, just go and do whatever you thought was a good idea, what was fun at the time. I’d say aim higher than what you think. You can achieve more than you think you can when you’re at school and it makes you realize you’re not at such a good school. Talk to your peers, talk your family, talk to people in jobs that you might think you like, but I didn’t really consider my career when I was really young and I probably should have done better than that.

If you could pick a completely different subject to study at the University of Brighton, what would it be?

Well, kind of linked to the first question really, I wish I had studied medicine, because I’ve moved my career into getting into that realm, being a physiologist but part of me wishes, maybe when I was younger, I’d have done medicine.

Can you pick a favorite place in Sussex?

Well, I love golf. So there’s nothing better than playing golf on Eastbourne Downs looking over the sea. You can see the whole of Sussex at the top the Downs, just in Eastbourne. Beautiful.

Yeah. And if you could give visitors to Brighton and the area tips of what to do or experience for a weekend, what would it be? What would the itinerary look like?

I’d say if you’re in Brighton then get out, although Brighton is very cool, lively, bustling and the lanes are great and you go out for dinner, it’s nice to go to Kommedia but also get out of Brighton. There’s  beautiful countryside and some lovely places outside of Brighton, like country pubs around Lewis and Ditchling. There’s some really nice places between Eastbourne and Brighton, the nice beaches, Seaford beach, much quieter, a lovely promenade. There’s some really good places outside of Brighton as well.

Tell us something interesting about you, which most people may not know?

What people don’t know is that my brother died when I was doing my degree and I was thinking about this, the students don’t realize that lecturers are aware of it if they’re going through a bad time. They probably don’t think the lecturer is aware of what it’s like to deal with bad things. And I think actually a lot of lecturers do realise that, and reflecting on me, going through a difficult time when I was doing my degree, I probably didn’t do as quite as well as I wanted to during my degree because it was difficult for me. But I want the students to realise that lecturers can go through difficulties, and there is mitigating circumstances and don’t be scared to go and talk to your lecturing staff because they may well have experienced similar stuff before. I think some students often feel worried about coming to talk about things. And actually they shouldn’t be. And they should know that all people have been through different things.

Yeah, I guess you think that sometimes that is related to the fact that sometimes people come from, especially the younger students, the most tradditional, come straight from school, and that relationship between teacher and student as between lecturer and student is very different isn’t it? It’s a bit more open and casual than it should be?

I guess on the courses I teach there’s such a fantastic relationship between the students and the staff, but it takes a while to build it. So when first students come in, there is a teacher and student relationship and it takes a while to break down that sort of boundary between the two. By the third year the students are much more open about talking in tutorials and classes and it’s much nicer. They realise that they can they can be themselves. They can ask whatever they feel comfortable asking. There aren’t any silly questions. When first students turn up, they are so guarded and worried about making themselves look silly from asking questions, and it doesn’t take long for them to realise that isn’t the case and we don’t feel that at all. And we are just just humans and we do want to help.

Final question is if you could pick three people to host for a dinner party. Who would they be and why?

I should really offer some kind of very high profile, cerebral politician, like Obama or Donald Trump. To be honest, I’d love to have Rory Mcllory over for dinner and learn about what he thinks about golf and golf swing. I’d love to meet Jurgen Klopp, I think he’s hilarious. And probably someone like Mickey Flanagan, just to make everyone laugh. Yeah. I wouldn’t want to win a high brow, worry about thinking what I’m saying, kind of dinner.