Soft landings

We investigate key performance and safety requirements in gymnastic flooring ahead of the opening of the new high-performance gymnastics training facility in Birmingham

One of several specialised gymnastics facilities due to open throughout the UK over the next few years, Birmingham’s Gymnastics and Martial Arts Centre (GMAC) training facility is currently under construction at Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr and is set for completion in 2008.
Birmingham has a strong track record in gymnastics, having hosted eight major events since 1993. Most recently the Federation Internationale De Gymnastique (FIG) Trampoline and Tumbling World Cup Final in 2006, the UEG Congress in 2005 and the FIG’s 12th Artistic Gymnastics World Cup Final in 2004.
The National Indoor Arena (NIA) is also set to host the Trampoline and Tumbling World Cup Final in November this year and will host the 2010 European Championships in Men’s and Women’s Team and Individual Artistic Gymnastics, at which the anticipated 800 European gymnasts participating at this event are likely to make use of the training facilities at the newly-built GMAC.
In order to host high-profile gymnastic events in the future, the GMAC will need to conform to the international standards set by FIG. The federation produces standards for all apparatus and matting used in competition [see references]. BSI standards also exist for a range of gymnastics equipment, safety mats and floor surfaces.

Well-equipped
GMAC will be equipped by Continental Sports, supplier to UK gymnastics for 40 years. The company equips all the top-level gymnastics competitions in the UK, as well as high-performance gymnastic centres. Examples of these include Lilleshall (the home of British Gymnastics), the National Gymnastics Performance and Research Centre at Loughborough University, the Central Manchester Institute of Gymnastics and the training facility installation at the City of Bristol Gymnastics Centre. Nearing completion is the Alex Way Gymnasium, part of the Mountbatten Centre in Portsmouth, which is due to open at the end of January 2008. Continental Sports will then turn its attention to installing the flooring and equipping the GMAC in April.
International-standard facilities are vital if Team GB is to mount a serious challenge for medals at future national and international gymnastic and sporting events.
“Gymnastics floor surfaces are generally very similar at venues around the world, particularly at higher levels of competition, where the standards are laid down by the International Federation,” says Matthew Greenwood, performance and technical director for British Gymnastics. “However, gymnasts often comment on the different ‘feel’ of an artistic floor area, in terms of its ‘hardness’ or ‘speed’ of response. It can, therefore, take a few training sessions for the proprioception in the muscles to tune into the specific elasticity of a certain surface. Floors that are deemed ‘hard’ can often result in short-term overuse injuries as the body takes time to adapt. This can have an influence on the amount of training undertaken in the period immediately prior to a major competition, where the gymnasts may be unfamiliar with the specific flooring and apparatus provided for the event.”

Safety first
A gymnastic speciality must be considered when providing flooring. These include:

• Men’s Artistic Gymnastics (comprising floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and high bar)
• Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (comprising vault, asymmetric bars, beam and floor)
• Rhythmic Gymnastics (comprising hoop, ribbon, clubs and rope)
• Trampoline Gymnastics
• Acrobatic and Tumbling Gymnastics
• Aerobic Gymnastics
• General Gymnastics
• Disability Gymnastics (GMPD)

The height from which the gymnast is descending is the main consideration. The thickness and composition of the mat must dissipate the energy of the impact before becoming completely depressed or ‘bottoming out’. The lateral displacement or trajectory of the gymnast will determine the size of the matting needed around the apparatus. The degree to which the gymnast is rotating should also be considered as must the need to prevent friction burns between the skin and an inappropriate surface to the matting.
A gymnastic hall should therefore feature several different thicknesses of flooring, depending on the degree of cushioning required for the particular discipline. However, uneven flooring can cause a risk of tripping and also restrict disabled access.
One solution tested at Loughborough Gymnastics Centre was to lay a multi-level concrete sub-floor of different thicknesses and performance flooring on top. This provided versatility and gave the appearance of an even floor – with no risk of tripping and with good disabled access. According to Continental Sports MD Nick Booth however, this solution created another safety issue. “We have suggested that it is better to have different levels, distinguished by different colours, so the gymnast knows what kind of surface they are on,” he says. “If the floor is all one level it is visually difficult for people to spot when one surface turns into another surface, particularly when, as at Loughborough, they are all the same colour.”
Booth explains there are reasons behind Loughborough’s use of a single carpet surface colour. The facility is a high-performance centre, linked to biomechanical faculty. The hall has several roof mounted cameras to analyse gymnasts’ performance. “They needed a floor colour (jade green) that is as close to the opposite of skin colour as possible. This is so computers can delete the floor and more effectively analyse biomechanical movement,” he says.

Floor makeup
Continental Sports manufactures its own flooring. The company buys different foams which are then laminated together.
The performance floor has a timber base manufactured from plywood panels containing a proprietary springing system, with a fastfoam underlay and a tribond foam laminated to a broadloom nylon carpet surface. The size of the performance floor area is a standard 14sq m. The marked working area is 12sq m (with a sprung area of 13sq m) complete with a 0.5m bevel on four sides. For the surrounding areas and between apparatus, a three-layer, 35-mm thick sandwich of laminated foams is used, with a carpet layer laminated to the top, fixed permanently to the concrete sub-floor. This area can then be used for warm-ups and training.
Given the impact associated with most gymnastics disciplines, cushioning is vital to the safety of the sport. Beyond the main flooring, 200mm-thick landing mats, as specified by governing bodies, are used in appropriate places for the various gymnastic disciplines.
As for the foam itself, Continental Sports makes use of closed-cell foams – which means when they are crushed, the air bubbles stay intact. With open-cell foams air leaves the cell. The result is that closed-cell foams last longer.
A carpet finish is specified on gymnastic floors because of the warmth and tactile qualities of textile surfaces. It does raise the issue of friction however. “Some facilities will have a rhythmic gymnastics floor where gymnasts will spend a lot more time rolling on the floor than in artistic gymnastics (tumbling). So that creates specific friction requirements and tests,” says Booth.
Environmental conditions further influence the choice of gymnastic flooring causing them to shrink and grow in different temperatures and levels of humidity. “The closed-cell foam and carpet surface we use is waterproof, as opposed to more traditional foams that will absorb water,” says Booth. The closed-cell foam is antibacterial and antifungal and non-absorbent so sweat does not soak in. It also needs to cope with being exposed to the chalk used in vaulting, bars and rings.”

New developments
The most recent gymnastic flooring development is providing laminated foam and carpet outside of the performance areas. Previously these would have been left bare and the onus would be on the gymnast to use an exercise mat to do their warm ups. “Covering the whole gym makes the area more useful,” explains Booth. “It also allows other uses, such as sectioning off areas for crèche and tiny-tots gymnastics. The surface is safe, cushioned, antibacterial and antifungal. It can also have applications for martial arts.”
According to Booth there are two types of martial art matting. The traditional heavy chipfoam mats with PVC covers and latex anti-slip bases, which are heavy, but can be placed onto whatever floor is available. Alternatively, there is a modern type of mat which is made up of closed-cell lightweight foams. The modern closed-cell mat weighs approximately 3kg, compared to 18kg for a traditional mat. Another advantage is that the modern mat is also antibacterial.
“Injury problems do occur with the old mats being pushed against each other – presenting the potential to trap fingers and toes when engaged in martial arts,” says Booth. “The lighter-weight mats can effectively be created as jigsaw pieces that fit together with no gaps at all.”

Performance aid
While FIG sets tight performance criteria for gymnastic floors, for training facilities this can be taken to another level to help stimulate higher performance by providing versions for more spring or cushioning.
The impact of surface on sporting performance was a key talking point in the lead up to the Athletics World Championships in Osaka, Japan, where athletes looked forward to a fast track helping to generate fast times. With gymnastics, one of the latest trends in tumbling has been the introduction of a tumbling track comprised of carbon fibre rods, covered by a foam-backed, carpet performance surface. This has resulted in more dynamic and spectacular tumbles with up to three sets of multiple somersaults and twists being possible in just one 25m run.

FACTS AND FIGURES

Birmingham’s Gymnastics and Martial Arts Centre (GMAC) at Alexander Stadium in Perry Bar will have a 1,840sq m gymnastic training hall with two floor areas to accommodate both traditional floor exercise and rhythmic gymnastics, a variety of fixed apparatus and tumble runs. It will also have spectator capacity for up to 460 people on retractable seating which, when pulled back, will create an area for trampolining.
In addition, there will be three martial arts areas to provide for Aikido, Judo, Karate, Ju-jitsu, Kendo and Wrestling. When not in use for martial arts, one of the rooms will be used for group exercise.
Funding for the £7m GMAC is being provided primarily from the sale of Birmingham Sports Centre.
British Gymnastics has been closely involved in all stages of the design process of GMAC, working with the architects and other city council staff, as well as with Continental Sports, the flooring and apparatus provider.
“Alexander Stadium provides an excellent example of where performance space has been maximised by clever use of floor surfaces between full competition landing areas and more general activity and warm up spaces,” says British Gymnastics performance and technical director Matthew Greenwood. “It demon-strates best practice in the integration of the differing needs of the sport’s disciplines.”

If the floor is all one level it is difficult to spot when one surface turns into another
A gymnastic speciality must be considered when providing flooring
A carpet finish provides warmth for gymnasts
 


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2009 issue 3

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