Research - School of Sport and Exercise Science

Every breath you take.

Professor John Dickinson's research on asthma and breathing issues in elite athletes led him to working with Team GB swimmers, as well as top football clubs including Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. His research is changing lives.

In 2003, interest piqued by an article on breathing muscle trainers, recent graduate John Dickinson contacted the academic behind the story to see if there were any related PhD opportunities. Six months later, he was testing the British Olympic team for asthma. Almost 20 years on, John’s research has led to major advances in our understanding of the diagnosis and management of asthma in elite athletes. “Asthma prevalence in the general population is about 10%, but we’ve found that in elite athletes it’s much higher: 70% in the British swimming team and between 25% and 30% in rugby and football. 

“We’ve discovered that a lot of athletes who have asthma are told they don’t and vice versa, and also that other respiratory problems, such as breathing pattern disorder, are missed. We’re able to give athletes a secure diagnosis, which means they and their team can address the correct issue. Often training becomes easier and ultimately their performance improves.”

Following stories suggesting that using asthma inhalers gave athletes an unfair advantage, John was asked by the World Anti-Doping Association to investigate. “The worry was that athletes who needed to use inhalers would be reluctant to do so. For me, it wasn’t just about elite athletes, it was also about kids avoiding using their inhalers because they were seen as a bad thing and by doing that damaging their lungs. So to be able to show that normal inhaler use doesn’t give you ‘super lungs’ but does ensure you have healthy lungs was rewarding.”

A pioneer in the field, John is now a recognised expert who believes his work, including his latest project investigating breathing pattern disorder, can help all of us, not just those at the top of their game: “My hunch is that a lot of people try exercise but get breathless and stop. Our research has shown what a healthy breathing pattern looks like, so it might be possible to devise some general principles around breathing, which could help people stay active.”

At Kent, John teaches students at all levels:

“I bring my experiences to my teaching, to illustrate how what students learn relates to real-world situations. When I can, I involve students in my research, it’s really valuable experience for them. I love seeing students move on to careers they’re excited about: one of our students now works with racing car drivers, while another works at the English Institute of Sport.”

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