Before continuing on in the thread of posts titled “Training Through Time” we need to take a tangent. What needs to be reviewed is where and how research that ends up eventually as articles on running, cycling and triathlon websites, as ‘training tips’ or even new concepts in training used by athletes, coaches, etc… is produced. Why? Because this is the research that has and continues to create the trends of how we exercise, what we believe is and isn’t healthy exercise, its the underpinning of the training methodology you are adhering today in pursuit of your own goals, and it can be the cause of changes even in government policy such as Canada’s Guide to Eating & to Exercise. Its important to know where that research comes from, what influences that research, and how that research is performed.

To that end we need to review the four main sources of research (aka sport science)…

Source #1 – Under and Post Grad University Students

Walk through the halls of any university and you will see corkboards like the one in the image advertising studies which are seeking subjects. Click on the image (taken at McMaster University) to read for yourself how research studies solicit. Undergrads have only one term to develop their research question and their research mechanism (as in the experimental process), propose it hopefully receiving approval, and then have to obtain subjects, perform the study, collect data, analyze it, review their results in comparison to prior studies on the subject, write a discussion and finally a conclusion handing it to their professor before the deadline. No easy task. There are numerous steps with many steps beyond the control of the researcher (or student in this case). For grad students the process is no less complex, in fact its usually more so due to the complexity of the research that grad students are required to take on in order to be considered valuable.

Most of the research performed by undergrads never sees past the office of the professor. Its marked, returned to the student and that marks its end.

Most of the research performed by grad students follows a similar life cycle, few are published although all seek to have their papers published.

Now think back to that last research study summary you read about on a triathlon, or running, or swimming website touting this type of training pattern, or that type. Do you remember noticing a pattern? The summaries almost always recommend some sort of 8, 10 or 12 week program… right? You’ve read it before: 10 weeks to your first race, 8 weeks to drop 10lbs, 12 weeks to improve your power output. Wonder why its always 8, 10 or 12 weeks? Its because thats the time students have to perform their study. Students don’t have months or years, only weeks.

The reality is… there are only so many weeks, studies have to be performed within that term so that the final paper can be written and submitted.

The reality is… there are piles and piles of research which has little relevance to reality because it doesn’t approximate reality in the least.

Consider this… how do the best of the best train? Do they train 8, 10 or 12 weeks and call it a year? No way. Peak performers train 48-52 weeks a year… so how applicable are studies performed only over 8, 10 or 12 weeks? What happens beyond the limits of the study? No one knows because that research wasn’t performed. Now consider the subjects who were part of the study… those who walked by, showed up at the study as required for the 2 x 1hr sessions, received their $20 participation fee and went on with their lives. The researcher can only hope that you and the study subjects are anywhere close to being alike so their results can be applicable to you. If not, the results are meaningless… at least to you (maybe not to someone else who was more akin to the subjects in the study).

Understanding where and how research into sport science, into health, into medications, drugs, ‘superfoods’, into everything is performed should awaken you to the reality that whether or not you have the results that the research says you should have is… an assumption. Articles touting ‘latest research results’ are attempting to seduce you into the tempting thought that all you have to do is follow these simple steps and voila… your results will be no different than those in the study.

This is why its so important to understand where ‘research results’ come from, and how they are obtained. If you do not understand that whether or not research results apply to you is an assumption, and a large assumption at that… then you will spend a lifetime chasing research and rarely ever gaining the traction in your training to come close to your potential. Most do not understand that research results are just that… a probability. Coaches who fail to understand that research results are simply a probability train all their athletes as if they are nails, where the latest research is seen as the newest hammer on the market.

Any athlete or coach approaching training as if its an algorithm or believe an algorithm developed on a population applies to the individual doesn’t have the educational or experiential background to be recommending anything to anyone, including themselves in the case of a DIY athlete.

Source #2 – Government Military Institutions
(e.g. Department of National Defense Research Labs)

The science coming out of universities may or may not apply to you personally, but chances are that those results are far more likely to apply to you then the results of physiology studies coming out of the Department of National Defense. Yet, so many conclusions have been extrapolated from studies on soldiers both in the lab and in the field to athletes that it seems the assumption is that there is no difference between the physiology of soldiers and athletes. I beg to differ.

Think to what soldiers are tasked with… march, crawl, climb, jump and do so in combat gear, with 20, 30, 50 or more lbs on their back, not to mention the weapons they carry plus the ammunition. Soldiers can be called into action at any moment, no enemy calls out for a 20min warm up so that everyone is ready before starting to fire upon one another. Combat scenarios can last seconds, to minutes, to hours, to days, to weeks, lasting through days, nights into the next day without any rest. Combat occurs in hot dry desert conditions, wet monsoon conditions, cold wet boggy conditions, you name it… people fight in it. And if nothing else then there is one tiny little variable that drives soldier and athlete far apart:  no athlete is ever, ever, ever in a do or die scenario; soldiers live in it.

It can be argued that many sports mirror specific activities performed by soldiers… agreed; but… for soldiers its typically all at once, with no defined starting or stopping point. How do you pace a combat scenario? You cannot, because you do not know if the enemy is going to fight 10mins, 10 hrs, 10 days or 10 weeks!

Understandably, research that came out of our military institutions was at times the only research available on various topics, but that does not mean in any way that the research applies to sport. The unfortunate reality is that instead of discounting the research performed on soldiers, sport has attempted to turn itself into a battlefield in an effort to endorse war time physiology onto athletes. Turn on any sporting event and you will hear commentators calling the play field a field of battle, the athletes warriors, battling for supremacy, whatever…

Sport is not war. War is war, and soldiers are soldiers and maybe some characteristics of being a soldier are athletic in nature but the two are not the same, nor is the research. Anyone who thinks different… has likely never been in a combat scenario, needs to experience one so they stop disrespecting what our service men and women do. Athletes compete in safe, regulated events, with specific start and stop points, with measures in place to minimize any risk of injury and there is rarely a threat of death to any athlete by competing in sport.

Source #3 – Government Non-Military Institutions
(e.g. Sport Institutes)

The science coming out of sport institutes does not apply to 99.9% of Canadians. Sport Institutes are typically focused on high performance, thus their research is on athletes at the highest level. The average Canadian is overweight, with a significant number obese, and an unreal number of Canadians morbidly obese. As much as we would like this research to apply to us, as tempting as it is to believe that we are at least on the weekends high performance athletes, for the majority how Canada’s top athletes train is as applicable to them as how Canada’s Air, Navy and Army forces defend our country.

It ain’t.

Not even close, so don’t even bother.

If you are training as if its a profession, as in 30+ hrs a week then the discussion will be different, but if you are not, then trying to train like a pro athlete is no different than trying to put on a soldiers full combat gear, a 50lb pack, plus taking up a rifle going for a 10km march and believing that the physiological effects are identical for you and for a career combat soldier.

It ain’t.

Not even close, so don’t even bother.

Absolutely, learning how peak performers train is seductive… we want to try to see how close we can come to doing what they can do, hoping that in some slight way that we are as awesome and amazing as they are. Reality is, if you’ve not been training as either a pro athlete or a pro soldier, then start right… get off the couch and take the dog for a walk, and then see if you can do that daily.

These first three sources of sport science have existed for decades, perhaps even closer to a half century if not more, and for the most part these sources have been relatively devoid of interference from the corporate world. This is to say that the research that came out of universities and government institutions were relatively unbiased (relative to today, ‘relatively unbiased’ is approaching wholly unbiased as you will come to appreciate shortly). The research performed and published was seriously seeking truth… not relative truth, but absolute truth as in the pursuit of fact, not opinion.

Unfortunately in the last couple of decades this has all changed, especially at universities. Universities in the past couple of decades are no longer allowed to see themselves as simply government funded institutions (along with tuitions covering a portion of total operating costs); instead universities are to see themselves as businesses… meaning that receiving a budget and simply blowing it is no longer acceptable, universities are being expected to generate their own stream of revenues by engaging with industry.

Sounds good, right?

Engage with industry? Partner! Collaborate! Lets whiteboard ideas, synergize through a brainstorming session, … long story short, a bunch of MBAs were put in positions of leadership and unaware of the consequences that they would inflict upon universities which up until now served to validate all the claims made by industry instead sold the credibility, the integrity and the honesty of their institutions to the highest bidder.

At the same time, the government has not being investing into research anywhere near whats required in order to be on the bleeding or leading edge of science. Research is still produced and published at government institutions but not on a scale where its a primary source of science.

The result of the convergence of these trends: the primary driver for the direction of research today is not absolute truth, but relative truth: corporations want their product/service to be ‘researched’ into relevancy, the claims regarding their product/service “proven” with only one outcome desired… convince the consumer to buy, buy, buy.  No, the goal is not to prove that their products/services actually do what they claim… that is irrelevant. Only one thing matters… make money, and then more and more not because the company is providing an incredible product or service, but because todays corporations can con the consumer, and they have “scientists” more than willing to help… provided pockets are lined of course.

As a result, we have rates of research fraud today that should make should make scientists cringe in embarrassment. Instead, scientists are lining up to sell their credibility, sell their ability to produce and publish “research” (if it can be called that anymore). Once upon a time, scientists were proud to seek the truth, today scientists seek suckers through the bull they call science.

Consider this…

There is no research, none anywhere that consistently with any degree of validity or reliability demonstrates that over-pronation or over-supinating is an actual cause of injury in runners. Yet! If you walk into any running retailer what will you hear… they will want to see how you walk, to ‘see’ whether your foot/ankle pronate normally, or over pronate or if you supinate in order so that they can recommend to you the appropriate running shoe.

And I have yet to walk into a single running retailer where the salesperson was a physiotherapist, a chiropractor, or a pedorthist, yet they all claim to have the skill and ability to not only assess, but recommend appropriate footwear!

And the entire footwear industry is in on it because… they manufacture shoes for each type of “problem” (even though none of these are problems)!

Runners have been sold that they need specific shoes in order to solve problems that running retailers have convinced them they have in order to sell products and evidently the service of shoe fitting when there is no documented correlation.

You got it… the entire running shoe stability issue is a scam. Funny thing… is if running shoe manufacturers and running retailers actually solved something, then shouldn’t runners not have all the injuries that they do have? Huh? How is it that these problem solving shoes haven’t solved a single problem?

Things that make you go hmm??? (Arsenio Hall, 1989-1994)

Source #4 – Researchers Collaborating with Corporations

It is the goal of scientific research to eliminate bias. Why? Because the moment there is any degree of bias means that the researcher and thus their research is unlikely to be looking at the hypothesis they want to test impartially, objectively, without the conclusion of how the tests will go in mind before any research is done, open to whatever outcome arises even if it proves their entire hypothesis wrong. A biased researcher is one who is going through the motions of performing research but already has in their mind the results, the discussion, and the conclusion pre-written, with the actual research to be performed a mere formality that even if not performed well, well… doesn’t really matter. With bias, research is no longer research, its an opinion. Perhaps its an opinion from someone who has many years of education or experience in an area, maybe even referred to as an ‘expert’, but nonetheless its only an opinion, and not scientific research.

But, today this does not seem to matter. Today “research” has become perverted to the point where university professors are quite literally up for sale. If a corporation wants their product or service “tested” with the conclusion that executives have pre-written in a corporate boardroom meeting… then what is left is only the discussion as to how much it’ll cost the corporation to have their “research” rubber stamped by a scientist so that their corporate machine can go into over drive marketing the claimed benefits as ‘real’… as stated in this study (that we – cough cough – had nothing to do with, ahem).

Back in the day when I was in “industry”, I remember sitting down with a university physics professor to discuss studying the potential of developing clothing embedded with sensors in order to assist seniors who were at significant risk of falling. This professor made it clear to me that not only him, but every professor was under serious pressure at the university to partner, collaborate, cooperate with industry in order to generate revenue opportunities for the university.

On one hand, it makes sense to use students as cheap labour to complete research that otherwise corporations would have to spend thousands upon thousands in order to perform, but on the other hand this relationship between universities and industry compromises the one thing that matters in research… impartiality. If a professor is receiving funding, grants, or whatever you want to call it (e.g. “support), perhaps not even directly but indirectly (as in their students receiving “support”) then immediately the quality, the integrity, the honesty of the research has to come into question. But a researcher who wants their research taken seriously knows that this is a state they cannot allow.

This is why research came from one of only three sources in the past… universities (funded by government) and other government institutions: because the lack of financial connection encouraged research to truly be research: a pursuit of truth, absolute truth.

Today… well that is not the case, which begs the question… what is the value of all this ‘research’ thats coming out of all these collaborations? Not much, yet this is what we are basing our concepts of health, of wellness, of training for peak performance.