Sports Physiology

Sports Physiology         
Prepared by  Prepared by: Christine May, Senior Research Consultant, Clearinghouse for Sport, Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission)
Reviewed by  Reviewed by network: Australian Sport Information Network (AUSPIN)
Last updated  Last updated: December 2016
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Physiology is the biological science which deals with the functioning of humans in good health, focusing at the level of whole systems, their organs and the cells of which they are comprised. In the case of exercise, the study of physiology looks at the acute responses and chronic adaptations to a wide-range of physical exercise conditions. A sports physiologist studies these responses in athletes, in response to training and competition, to enhance and refine overall fitness and athletic performance.

Physiology is a service offered across the Australian high performance sport training-centre network:

A sports physiologist performs a very broad range of tasks which contribute to the performance of an individual or team of athletes in a particular sport. Broadly speaking, a sports physiologist is responsible for performing the following scientific functions:

  • Identify and quantify an athlete’s physical and physiological characteristics in a laboratory or field setting
  • Establish the physiological and performance demands of competition
  • Interpret routine fitness tests for individuals and teams
  • Determine and implement effective interventions (e.g., training, dietary, recovery, environmental, technological) that can positively alter physiological responses to improve sports performance
  • Training program design and planning
  • Modelling and monitoring training sessions or performance to accurately quantify physical load/stress placed on athletes
  • Maintain, evaluate and develop sport technology and scientific equipment
  • Educate and provide relevant advice to athletes, coaches, peers and students
  • Travel with athletes and teams to training camps or competitions
  • Conduct applied research projects to enhance sports performance
  • Presentation and reporting of testing and research outcomes

On a daily basis, these activities might require specific knowledge and skills to perform the following activities including, but not limited to:

  • Using ergometers, stopwatches, blood gas analysers, spirometers, ultrasound devices, heart-rate monitors
  • Performing venepuncture, carbon monoxide rebreathing, submaximal and progressive maximal tests, skeletal muscle biopsies, anthropometry, equipment calibration and validation
  • Sampling expired gasses, blood, sweat, saliva, skeletal muscle, faeces
  • Measuring heart rate, haemoglobin mass, body temperature, subjective ratings of effort, blood gasses and metabolites, running speed, jump height, skinfold thickness, power output, urine specific gravity, immune function
  • Determining maximal oxygen uptake, lactate threshold, body composition, running economy

Due to the diverse nature of the discipline of sports physiology a number of sub-disciplines are evident:

  • Altitude training
  • Exercise in the heat (thermoregulation)
  • Biochemistry and haematology
  • Immunology
  • Performance recovery
  • Tapering
  • Talent Identification
  • Anthropometry
  • Smart sensors and devices


  • Exercise and Sport Science Australia (ESSA) is a professional organisation which is committed to establishing, promoting and defending the career paths of tertiary trained exercise and sports science practitioners. Exercise physiology accreditation is available from ESSA to those professionals working in a clinical setting. ESSA requires accredited exercise physiologists (AEPs) to maintain their accreditation through continuing professional development. ESSA offers both membership (across seven categories) and accreditation. In 2012, ESSA was reported as having 6,199 members (source: Page 10, 2013 Senate Enquiry: Practice of Sports Science in Australia, Commonwealth of Australia).
    • National University Course Accreditation Program. ESSA accredits higher education courses that have met the association’s high quality standards for accreditation through its National University Course Accreditation Program (NUCAP). The primary objective of NUCAP is to provide higher education academic units with a framework to build courses of excellence in exercise and sports science to ensure that graduate outcomes are aligned with industry requirements.
  • Sports Medicine Australia (SMA) is a national multidisciplinary organisation committed to enhancing the health of all Australians through safe participation in sport and physical activity.
  • Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER) is the professional association advocating for quality health & physical education curriculum, supporting professional learning of teachers and promoting active and healthy lifestyles for all Australians. 


  • European College of Sport Science (ECSS) is an international non-profit organisation with the purpose of promoting science and research, with special attention to the interdisciplinary fields of sport science and sports medicine.
  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is an association of sports medicine, exercise science, and health and fitness professionals and is dedicated to helping people worldwide live longer, healthier lives.
  • British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) is the professional body for sport and exercise sciences in the United Kingdom. The vision of BASES is to lead excellence in sport and exercise science through evidence-based practice in Physiology, biomechanics and psychology disciplines.
  • International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education is the world’s largest network of organisations and institutions concerned with sport, sport science and physical education, accounting for millions of people. By fostering sport, exercise, education and health, ICSSPE contributes to the development of human society. The organisation operates with the intention to 1) investigate for a better scientific understanding of all facets of human movement; 2) educate for a better quality of life and improved health for all people; and, 3) advocate for the benefits related to an active lifestyle and the ethical values inherent in sporting activity.

To become a sports physiologist a person must have completed university studies (an undergraduate degree followed by a postgraduate degree, such as honours, masters or PhD) in Exercise Science, Human Movement, Sport Science, Physical Education or a related field. Numerous Australian universities offer courses in the field of physiology, exercise science or sport science. ESSA estimates that 3,000 exercise and sports science students graduate each year.

Unlike other specialist experts who practice in Australia, such as a doctor, psychologist or dietitian, there is currently no official requirement for a sports physiologist to be registered or accredited with a national professional organisation. Sports physiologists can practice in a variety of settings and may work as permanent employees, consultants, be self-employed, occupational trainees and volunteers. In Australia, the majority of sports physiologists are associated with State Institutes of Sport and State Academies of Sport (SIS/SAS), national sporting organisations (NSOs) and professional sporting teams.

Often, sports physiologists work in a collaborative manner with other specialists to provide coaching staff relevant evidence-based support to foster athlete development and enhance athletic performance. Specialist practitioners who work along with sports physiologists may include nutritionists, biomechanists, performance analysts, psychologists, skill acquisition specialists, doctors or physiotherapists. Collectively, the group is known as a team of ‘sport scientists’. In 2012, Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA), estimated that there were 400 people working as professional sports scientists in Australia [source: Profiling the Australian High Performance and Sports Science Workforceexecutive summary (PDF File – 831 KB) or full report (PDF File – 3.4 MB), undertaken by the Centre of Exercise and Sports Science (C-ESS), Deakin University, funded by ESSA, December 2013]; however, only twenty sports scientists chose to be nationally accredited through ESSA’s program.

  • 'Dodgy' scientists outside the rules of medicine. Morton R, The Australian, 8 February 2013, p.4.

To put this into a broader perspective, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 95,590 people were employed in sport and recreation occupations, with the greatest number working as Fitness Instructors (21,514), in the latest Census on Employment in Sport and Recreations, Australia (catalogue number 4148.0, August 2011).      

In February 2013, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) published a report on Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport, which revealed that, among other staff, ‘sports scientists’ had condoned and/or orchestrated the administration of prohibited and not-yet-approved substances to athletes. As such, the controversial practice by ‘pseudo-science’ practitioners thrust the practice of ‘sport science’ in Australia into the spotlight. A senate enquiry which followed into the Practice of Sport Science in Australia (July, 2013, Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, Australian Government) revealed a lack of consensus on the precise definition of what constitutes a ‘sports scientist’. This prompted ESSA, the only nationally recognised organisation for exercise and sport science, to call upon the federal government and major sporting codes to agree to a national regulatory body to oversee accreditations to avoid future issues surrounding banned substances.

Research conducted into Profiling the Australian High Performance and Sports Science Workforce (referenced above) gives valuable insight about the scope of the profession to enable further development of strategic plans for the industry. Of the 400 personnel estimated to be working in the sector, 210 of these people completed the survey. As such, the report was able to generalise the findings about the characteristics and issues of personnel working in the Australian high performance and sport science workforce. Key recommendations listed in the report called for: 1) the agreement of a definition of a sport scientist and their scope of practice, with a draft definition proposed, 2) the establishment of a national registration and accreditation scheme for the High Performance and Sport Science profession, commissioned by ESSA, 3) increase the rate of training in ethical practice in the profession, overseen by ESSA, 4) increasing opportunities for relevant professional development, facilitated or provided by ESSA, 5) improvement in organisational human resource practices, 6) future research to ensure appropriate industry decision making related to the profession.         

Professional Accreditation

In December 2017 Sport Australia (formerly the Australian Sports Commission) announced the introduction of a national accreditation scheme for sport scientists (including but not limited to physiologists, biomechanists, performance analysts, skill acquisition specialists and strength scientists) and strength and conditioning coaches. The schemes will be run in partnership with Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) and the Australian Strength & Conditioning Association (ASCA). In order to continue receiving funding through Sport Ausatralia's Sport Investment Agreements, national sporting organisation will be required to ensure that all sport science and strength and conditioning staff have relevant accreditation with ESSA and/or ASCA by the end of 2018. The scheme will be reviewed after 2 years.  

Exercise physiology accreditation is available from Exercise and Sport Science Australia (ESSA) to those professionals working in a clinical setting. ESSA requires accredited exercise physiologists (AEPs) to maintain their accreditation through continuing professional development. 

The National Sport Science Quality Assurance Program is an initiative of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and a program of AIS Performance Support services. The main aim is to promote continuous improvement in sports science testing standards in Australia and to help sports science programs involved in the assessment of athletes to establish and maintain an environment of national standard. They work with the AIS and state and territory institutes and academies of sport to monitor quality assurance issues, and work with sports scientists to critically evaluate all aspects of laboratory/facility function likely to affect the reliability and accuracy of test results. NSSQA offers accreditation programs for Exercise Physiology Laboratories. The quality assurance program was initiated, and continue to be guided by sports scientists working in Australian laboratories and facilities.

National Sport Science Quality Assurance (NSSQA) accreditation requirements and information, test protocols, reliability data.

Where possible, direct links to full-text and online resources are provided. However, where links are not available, you may be able to access documents directly by searching our licenced full-text databases (note: user access restrictions apply). Alternatively, you can ask your institutional, university, or local library for assistance—or purchase documents directly from the publisher. You may also find the information you’re seeking by searching Google Scholar.


Conference Proceedings

  • Proceedings of the 2016 International Association of Computer Science in Sport (IACSS) Conference. The International Association of Computer Science in Sport Conference 2016 took place between July 31– August 3, 2016 in Brasilia, Brazil. The aim of the conference was to promote the inter-disciplinary field of sport science and computer science in order to face challenging problems in sports and exercise sciences, supported by formal models, analytical approaches and computational support. (IACSS)

Electronic journals

Online Resources

Policy, position stands and relevant reports

  • The value of Accredited Exercise Physiologists to Consumers in Australia (PDF File – 964 KB). Deloitte Access Economics Report for Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), November 2016. This report estimates the value of accredited exercise physiologists from the perspective of consumers in Australia. Focus is on cost to benefit rations for Australian consumers with specific health conditions including: depression, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Full Report and Infographic overview (PDF File – 56 KB) available. 
  • Declaration of Helsinki: ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects. World Medical Association (WMA) - Adopted by the 18th WMA General Assembly, Helsinki, Finland, June 1964, recently amended at the 64th WMA General Assembly, Fortaleza, Brazil, October 2013. The policy statement of ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects, including research on identifiable human material and data.   

Clearinghouse Videos

Please note a number of the resources below (as indicated) are restricted to ‘GOLD' AIS Advantage small AIS Advantage members only.
Please see the Clearinghouse membership categories for further information.

Lecture Series

  • Performance Science Lectures—40 lectures, (August - September 2011)


  • Iñigo Mujika: Sport Physiology and Training. Iñigo Mujika (PhD) is an applied sport physiologist, coach and author. This site contains a wealth of resources regarding research interests: training methods and recovery, tapering, detraining, and overtraining, and more.
  • Sportscience. A peer-reviewed journal and website for sport research. This site contains a wealth of resources and information for researchers and students in the sport and exercise sciences, with an emphasis on physiology, athletic performance, statistics, valid and reliable research methods, interpretation of results, sport specific research application and much more.    
  • The Science of Sport. Tucker R & Dugas J. Features articles by two PhD Exercise Physiologists, who provide extensive analysis and topical sport science debate.
  • Sports Physiology. Sports Training Adviser
  • Physiology. English Institute of Sport, United Kingdom

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