Meet Dr Lex Mauger: expert in exercise physiology

A headshot of Lex Mauger

Have you ever questioned why exercise, despite making us healthier, can be painful? Or whether this pain has an impact on your performance and what can be done to alleviate it? Meet Dr Lex Mauger, Director of Research and Innovation in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, whose research aims to answer these questions and more, with implications for everyone from elite athletes to the everyday population.

Lex, tell me about your research interests.

I work in Sport and Exercise Sciences, a multidisciplinary area of study which looks at things like how people’s minds and bodies respond to exercise or how people place themselves in relation to the sporting world. Specifically, my expertise is in exercise physiology, or how the body and its physiological systems respond and adapt to exercise. I’m particularly interested in the pain we perceive during exercise and how this influences the exercise that we do. For example, does the pain we experience during vigorous exercise have a specific role in the fatigue that occurs at these intensities? What would be the implications for increasing or decreasing this pain?

Is this an easy thing to test?

We can artificially induce pain during exercise using a variety of methods. One of the main methods I use in my lab is an injection hypertonic saline solution into the muscle which causes an aching, burning and cramping sensation – a lot like when we’re exercising hard. This technique allows us to uncouple the relationship between the exercise intensity we work at and the pain we experience. We then use a series of other techniques to activate the neuromuscular system to see whether the pain itself is responsible for the fatigue we experience.

And what have you discovered?

We’ve found that there is a unique role for pain in the fatigue we experience during exercise. If you make an otherwise easy task painful so that it feels like a hard exercise task, your performance in the exercise will decrease. A large reason for this is that the pain you experience makes it more challenging for the brain to activate the muscles you are using to perform the task. The muscles themselves aren’t particularly affected, but your ability to engage them is compromised.

Interestingly, we’ve also experimented with inducing pain in the muscle which isn’t exercising and found that exercise performance is impacted in a similar way.

Does this work the other way around – does reducing pain increase exercise performance?

Yes, our research has also shown that if we give analgesics (painkillers) to athletes before exercise, their performance is improved, which leads to questions about whether they should be used in elite sport. Tramadol, for instance, is a synthetic centrally acting narcotic and strong analgesic which has been shown to have a high incidence of use by athletes, especially cyclists, during competition. We have just completed a study to provide evidence for the World Anti-Doping Agency to inform their decision making on whether or not to ban the use of tramadol by athletes in competition.

What implication does your research have for non-elite athletes?

For the everyday population there are benefits to understanding how pain and exercise relate to each other. For instance, exercise-induced pain is not damaging but the mind can still interpret it as a threat, in a similar way  to pathological pain, and therefore many of us try to avoid it. We know this is counter-intuitive as exercise will ultimately make us healthier, so understanding this relationship could help to change our perceptions of exercise-induced pain and improve our exercise adherence as a result.

It also has relevance to clinical populations, such as those who experience exacerbated pain during exercise. If we can understand why that pain is being caused and how to reduce or overcome it, it could enable a patient better manage their condition and hugely improve their quality of life.

Can you share any other examples of innovative projects you’ve been involved with?

We worked on an EIRA-funded project with Infi-tex, an SME which has developed a smart material which can sense pressure. They were able to print a pair of insoles which could identify a pressure signal on a single point of the insole. We used the insoles to identify different parameters of gait to measure gait pattern and stride frequency then worked with Caroline Li in the School of Computing to develop a machine learning programme which would automatically detect changes in gait caused by musculoskeletal pain. This technology could be used to assess whether someone is walking or running sub-optimally so that they can take steps to improve their gait.

Human augmentation is a big focus for the Kent Signature Research Theme, Future Human, for which you’re a lead. Can you tell us more about it?

Future Human is essentially focussed on the optimisation and enhancement of human performance and the impact that that has for society and the world that we live in. It provides opportunities for those interested in the methods that enhance or restore human performance, the technology or techniques which might enable that, and how we measure it. It’s such an interesting topic, as there are so many ethical, societal, and technical questions associated with it.

What kind of opportunities does it offer?

We have several projects emerging from our ‘sandpit’ events, which brought researchers together from a range of disciplines to discuss cross-disciplinary research opportunities. One project is working with people impacted by the Post Office Horizon scandal to bring their voices to the forefront of the conversation to understand the negative implications of digital by default. Another project is looking to establish an internal health clinic for Kent staff and students.

We are also funding two PhD studentships which will take a novel, patient centred approach to drug development and human-machine clinical decision making. So for example, rather than going from the lab to designing a new treatment which takes years to get to the patient, we are taking a patient-centred approach to support the development of those drugs at a much earlier stage.

How are you making sure that the outputs of Future Human are in line with what businesses and other external organisations want?

It is important to us that the outputs of the Future Human SRT align with what businesses want and need. We take several approaches to achieve this. For example, we are putting together an external steering group which will support and inform the development of our strategy, and we work with businesses to build links with academics to develop collaborative funding applications. In 2022-23 we will be running a special research Sandpit specifically designed to bring academia and industry together to identify business-led challenges and to support creative, collaborative thinking to develop solutions to these challenges.

And finally, what is it that you’ve taken away from leading on Future Human?

One of the great things about my role as an SRT lead is interacting with a range of academics, hearing about different views, research interests, and opportunities, and also with professional service staff and learning much more about how the university works and the people working here. It is very fulfilling to be able to identify and then build the links between staff who might not otherwise have had the chance to meet and work together, and to be able to help the teams that emerge overcome some of the challenges they may face. So it’s been enlightening, rewarding, and really interesting!

Interested in discussing opportunities to collaborate with the School of Sports and Exercise Sciences? Get in touch with the University of Kent’s business and innovation gateway team at to start a conversation.

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