THE quest for the precious marginal gains has long served as sport’s Holy Grail, the smallest differences often separating Olympic golds from medal oblivion. Exactly 16-hundredths of a second, indiscernible to the naked eye, stood between Duncan Scott and an individual bronze in swimming’s 100m freestyle in Rio with victory a mere blink further away. And despite the precocious talent of the Scot, little will be left to chance over the next four years to ensure that tiny deficit is removed by the time he takes the plunge into the pool in Tokyo.

Which is where two sticky pieces of tape and a laptop come in. To supplement all the hours of graft that Scott and his fellow aspirants at the sport’s hub at the University of Stirling put in, a small team of boffins beavers away on dry land. Their exertions, they hope, will not only deliver quantitative research but also quality results from their laboratory specimens.

A joint initiative, effectively, between the swimmers and the scientists located on campus, it has seen a diagnostic tool called tensiomyography – or, for the hard of spelling, TMG – join a towel and scull cap as part of the toolkit at their collective disposal.

The set-up, like most gadgets of true value, looks blindingly simple but, as head coach Ben Higson declares, is anything but. A giant magnet attached to sensors is able to diagnose the slightest twitch in the muscle and measure how quickly it contracts and releases. A tired, or injured, body is on slow speed. It provides a speedy insight that allows its owner to respond or repose. But there are multiple ways that the process can inform and educate.

“The key thing is it’s not too disruptive in what they’re already doing in the gym but it adds another layer to what we’re doing in the water and on land,” Higson outlines.

“We had two of our breaststrokers with a severe imbalance in their hamstrings so we tailored their gym programme to make them more symmetrical. They were able to correct that on land rather than in the pool. But we have used it at competitions and seen cases where the swimmers muscles weren’t tight enough. So we asked them to do exercises in their warm-up to hopefully help them in their race.”

Implemented with assistance from the adjoining Sportscotland Institute of Sport, the research team who crunch the numbers compiled megabytes of raw data during the long lead-in to the Olympics and will collate more going forward. With the Stirling group also including another Rio medallist Dan Wallace plus Tokyo hopefuls Ross Murdoch and Kathleen Dawson, the wealth of information will be put at the disposal of each as they plot assaults on each competition and each season.

“With tapering you need to row back the training when they’re preparing for an event so they’re ready to race,” Dr Angus Hunter, the project lead, illustrates. “You can tailor that. You can use it as a screening tool if someone’s detecting an injury. They might feel it’s a niggle but it’s ok. We can find it’s one side that’s under-performing. So as a coach, you’re aware of that and can back off. In the longer-term, it can detect if one side is weaker than the other so strength and conditioning coaches can play to create more symmetry and a more even stroke in the water.”

The applications are numerous. Over-compensating from one limb to the other can uncover fault lines that might, without warning, open into a cruciate tear. Other secrets may be revealed. A few Primera Liga football clubs in Spain have plugged in the technology. Scottish Hockey has enlisted Stirling’s expertise. Others, Higson asserts, should buy into the innovation.

“When we got approached two years ago about using this, I thought there must be a catch,” he declares. “But when we got through the initial trawl, I couldn’t believe how quick the information came and how useful it was. It was unbelievable. So I’m surprised that top football and rugby clubs don’t use it more. Because they can identify potential injuries from prevention side and help make improvements from a performance view.”

Wallace, as a new arrival in Stirling, can expect a thorough analysis. No probes required. During Rio 2016, Scott’s personal coach Steve Tigg based much of the warm-up routines he set on the knowledge gained on what needed extra attention and what could be left well alone. His cohort will get similar prescriptions in due course with the funding for the TMG concept secure past the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.

Doctors orders might bridge the gap between fifth and first in an Olympic final by the time, if all goes to plan, the teenage tyro lands in Japan four years hence. “For an athlete of Duncan Scott’s talent, the sky is the limit,” Higson asserts. “Him and Steve have such a structured long-term vision for him to achieve in 2020 and beyond. What you’ve seen of Duncan at the moment is only the tip of the iceberg.”