How to tell the good advice from the B.S.

With the sheer volume of Sport science and training advice flying around, how do you tell the wheat from the chaff. This is Racesnake’s layman’s guide to help evaluate the stuff you should use, the stuff you should ignore and the down right made up!

With so much advice about training, racing, eating, equipment and just about any other aspect of sport flying around it can be nigh on impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. Knowing a few basic things about scientific processes and having a few simple tools to quickly evaluate the providence of any advice you read, can go a long way to helping you separate the informed opinion form the scientific fact and a downright waste of time!

Most areas of Sport science are best guesses

Whilst a few things can be taken as science fact there is surprisingly little that science actually proven in this area. Take strength training for runners. Whilst many people have studied it no one has conclusively proven the exercises that work best or even that it works at all. This is further complicated by the fact that what works best is probably highly individual. Science and sports professionals can make a best fit using what they do know, filling in the blanks with plausible ideas for the rest.

Be wary of someone giving facts!

Considering how little we know there are a surprising number of people giving facts. Most articles making definite statements such as; ‘stretching will end your Achilles pain’ should be treated very sceptically. Most experts will use moderating words such as probably, likelyin some cases or maybe useful. This reflects the fact that most things in Sport science are not fact!

Not all sources are created equal

Mainstream media are always looking for new content and ideas and as such are prone to exaggerating the benefits of new Sports science ideas. They also often offer disproven training ideas because it works in the opinion of the individual journalist. It is always wise to look at what references they give to support their claims and the qualifications of any commentators. A simple google search will normally turn up the research underpinning any area of sports science.  PPonline is a great source of sports advice, with the latest ideas critically reviewed and articles written in a way that makes the science both accessible and practical.

Do they value what you value?

‘Research has shown that strength resistance training improves muscle power in endurance athletes’. Great but this does not mean they got faster.

Most scientists test variables that are measurable and reproducible under laboratory condition. Improving these variables (e.g: isolated muscle strength) does not necessarily improve performance. Indeed testing performance improvement is tough because there are so many variables involved. Failure of commentators and coaches to acknowledge this is perhaps the main reason claims for new ideas get overblown.

Who’s Who?

Similar to the point above, science testing tends to be carried out on small groups of people who share similar traits. If the test group is elite athletes then the training methods may well not have the same effect on amateurs with different time constraints and physiological factors etc. Nutritional and injury rehabilitation research are particularly problematic because they often select populations at the extremes of a given problem. For example testing a new diet on obese people will lead to different outcomes than if tested on an athlete training 12hrs a week.

Is it realistic?

Most of us have very busy lives and have to balance our training with work, family and social commitments. For this reason we often need training that is time efficient, offering the most bang for your buck if you will. Therefore you have to ask whether something proven to provide a marginal gain for a pro is likely to make more difference to your performance than the exercise it replaces.

Is it the full story?

I have read many articles that offer a new training regime that is proven to collapse times and shatter only to find it is not quite what it says on the tin. A good example of this is the current 3 times a week marathon training regime. It is widely reported how this study showed 3 run sessions a week could see times tumble. It is less widely reported, if ever, that the study participants were also encouraged to conduct static bike, strength and conditioning training as well. This could easily add up to 3 extra sessions! Again, always go to the source.

The received opinion

Perhaps the most pervasive and stubborn example of this is stretching. It has been shown time and again to have no performance or injury prevention benefits indeed it’s not even clear if it’s possible to stretch some muscles. But it is still touted everywhere as a cure, performance enhancer and general prerequisite for athletes. I even do it!

Stretching still may have merit. It is true the failure of science to prove something is not proof that something is invalid. But be wary of devoting a lot of time completing training just because lots of people keep regurgitating it.

In summary if you read of some miraculous new training intervention in an off the shelf fitness magazine, online forum or blog be sceptical. Look for the scientific evidence that underpins it and decide for yourself just how miraculous it is!

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