I am a voracious reader of exercise related studies. I love reading about anything that might make me a better runner, and for a long time I was apt to try out lots of what I read in these studies. Whether it was new type of workout, a prerace fueling strategy or the hottest new supplement I was willing to give it a shot. In the 10+ years of my second running life I have learned a great about training both through reading and experimenting.
I’ve tried all of the following as a result of something I read in a study.
- Tabata protocol (the real one)
- Fish oil supplements
- Beetroot juice
- Various caffeine prerace loads
- Hill Sprints
- Lower body strength training
- Iron supplements
- Shakeout runs
- Vitamin D supplements
- Innumerable warmup stratagies
- Innumerable taper/peaking strategies
That is actual just a partial list of the things I’ve tried, I’ve forgotten many and am too embarrassed to admit some of the others. Through trial and error I have focused both my intake of supplements and my training. I’ve also learned enough about scientific studies to not bother to try most of what I read these days. I’ve narrowed down the above list to the following.
- Drink my normal cup of coffee in the morning before a race and sometimes have a cup of tea later in the day if I’m tired.
- Iron supplement once a day at bedtime. (my hemoglobin hovers around 12)
- Vitamin D 4000 iu October through April
I don’t do any plyos, weight lifting, Tabata workouts, biking etc but I do hill sprints at various points of my training cycle. I’ve given up trying to “properly” taper or peak and usually just take it easy with some strides the few days leading into an important race. As for my warm up I’ve settled into a 20-25 minute easy run with some strides and dynamic stretching beginning 45 minutes before race time.
So how did I go from a crazy try anything experimenter to a training change skeptic? For starters I never saw any improvement in my race times when i tried most of the stuff these studies said would make me faster. Even the iron and vitamin d which I still take is hard to equate to any improvement in my racing. The other big shift in my thinking came when I made some realizations about studies, even good studies published in respected peer reviewed journals. Here is what I finally realized.
1. These aren’t the participants you are looking for.
What do you consider a well trained runner? How about an experience runner? Most studies done on runners don’t apply to you because you are just too good of a runner. To a researcher in small college in Idaho, running 15-20 miles a week and having a 5k time of 25 minutes +/- 3 minutes is a well trained or experienced runner. It is should be no surprise then that nearly any change in training will result in an improvement. If you take a bunch of people who run 15 miles a week at an average pace of 9 minutes per mile and race 26 minutes for 5k and add in 2 times a week of 8×10 second sprints they are going to get faster, often a lot faster… you not so much.
When it comes to supplements, often the studies are done on people suffering from some ailment, or they are older non-exercising folks. I remember a study that showed something along the lines of 20% improvement in muscle strength with DHEA supplementation, but this was in an elderly population suffering from a muscle wasting disease, not healthy already fast distance runners.
2. Training for a marathon ain’t like playing pickup basketball, crossfit boy.
I’m sure by now you have all heard about the many benefits of high intensity interval training or HIIT. This new miracle method of training trains both your anaerobic and aerobic systems at the same time in as little as 30 minutes a day. Study after study prove that HIIT raises VO2max higher and faster than the simply doing aerobic training. The implications are clear, you are wasting your time doing all that running. By doing cross fit a few times a week, not only can you get ripped and shredded but you can run a faster marathon too!
Only one problem… no one I know trains only by running slow all the time. Beware the study that setups unnatural dichotomies. I’ve yet to see the study on HIIT that shows improvements in VO2max (or god forbid actual races times) that are superior to what you would get training like most distance runners I know train. That is to say doing 65-75% easy running a week and 25-35% of some form of speed work.
3. Don’t get technical with me. What P value? What are you talking about? I’ve just about had enough of you. Go that way, you’ll be malfunctioning in a day you near-sighted scrap pile.
Researchers love their P values… and really who doesn’t love a good P value? According to Goodman and his article “Toward Evidence-Based Medical Statistics.” (via wikipedia) In statistical significance testing the p-value is the probability of obtaining a test statistic at least as extreme as the one that was actually observed, assuming that the null hypothesis is true.
Fine whatever you say Goodman. In more easy to understand terms a P value tells you how unlikely it is that some other thing is causing a result. The lower your P value the more likely your hypothesis is, or I suppose the more unlikely the null hypothesis is… look it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. It is kind of like our monetary system, it is a collective delusion. Born to Run apologist and Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman has published studies about how awesome barefoot running is based on “research” done on the Harvard cross country team. The research showed that the 2 out of 13 kids on the team that ran with a forefoot strike the other 11 rearfoot struck. Those 2 kids didn’t get hurt during the season and 3 of the kids who rearfoot struck did get hurt, so clearly barefoot running is great and he has the data and sweet tiny little P value to prove it… yeah Dan you have a real small P value all right.
First off, that story about Dr. Lieberman is only partly true, I’m not even sure what parts because I don’t feel like looking up the study right now and I’m just going roughly off what I remember about it from 2 years ago. Second off, this seems to be the basic approach that major news outlets including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal take to writing about research. They see some result that people will want to believe and they write about it without really knowing the subject matter or the details involved. Which leads me to my final thoughts on the matter.
4. I find your lack of faith disturbing (OK now I’m just being lazy and not even changing any words in the quotes)
The wonderful thing about the internet is that it gives everyone including me a voice. The terrible thing about the internet is it gives everyone including me a voice. And while certainly major and formerly respected news outlets should do a better job of critically reviewing and reporting on scientific studies, they are the least of the problem. Pay for content sites like Livestrong.com, About.com and many more are willing to pay for and give the title “expert” to just about anyone. These sites come up early and often in search results, and do a very good job of presenting themselves and trust worthy sources of information. But we all need to be smarter about critiquing our sources. I’m not going to get into all the problems these sites present (maybe I’ll address that another day I’m bored and a little grumpy at work). The next time you find yourself reading something posted on one of those sites just think of poor trusting Charlie Brown.
The bottom line is, there is a lot of information out there. Some of it is interesting, some of it is useful and some of it is just a wanked pigskin. Be smart about what you consume both with your mouth and your brain.