QT: Running Science Isn’t Always Black and White

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Buckle up, buttercup.

This one could get a little crazy.

I promise I’m not trying to stir up a hornet’s nest just for the sake of causing chaos.

That said, consider yourself warned.

First Things First

Before we run the risk of this devolving into something less than productive, let me make a few things clear.

1: I’m definitely pro-science.

There are no shortage of instances where I’ve thrown my full support behind science and the scientific method.

That hasn’t changed.

That said, I think it’s important to remember that science is a process and is always evolving.

Especially as it relates to human science.

I’d wager there’s as much, if not more, that we don’t know about our bodies and how they respond to physical activity than what we do, and science is a key piece of the puzzle to learning more.

The process isn’t perfect, not by any stretch.

2: I’m going to get something wrong.

I’m not trying to pretend like I know every study and every piece of research that is available on any of the topics I’m going to get into today.


My goal today isn’t to espouse absolute facts or to debunk any specific studies.

Rather, I hope this post/episode encourages you to think a bit more critically about various scientific claims and how they may, or may not, apply to you without just blindly accepting whatever you’ve been told.

Even when I’m the one doing the telling.

Because odds are I’m going to get something wrong at some point.

3: It’s OK to change your mind.

One of my favorite sayings of late is that as facts change, opinions change.

Too often, I think we find ourselves dug into various positions and unwilling to accept the possibility that our position could be wrong or that something else could be better.

We see this every day in politics. In religion. At work. And in running.

If I say something that contradicts something I’ve said in the past?

I don’t see that as a bad thing. In fact, I think that’s a great thing!

I’ve learned. I’ve grown. There has been new evidence that causes me to look at things from a different perspective.

Facts have changed. Opinions have changed.

If I ruffle your feathers a bit today?

I’m not saying you have to change your mind. But maybe it’s worth looking at whatever the particular topic is from a different angle.

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The Trouble with Running Science

With the disclaimers out of the way, let’s kick the hornet’s nest then, eh?

I’m sure it’s the algorithm more than anything else, but I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter on social media lately using science to back up various points of view within the running community.

The benefits of running easy. Fat adaptation. The need for carbs. VO2 max improvements.

So on. So forth.

And again, just so we are clear, I’m here for it!

More research and solid scientific evidence is a good thing!

It helps us as runners maximize our potential in the sport and it helps me as a coach do my job more effectively.

The problem is that not all running science applies to all runners.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean the science is bad.

But it means, at least to me, that a little bit of critical thinking is required.

Perhaps a few examples would be useful in helping me make my point.

  • What is the population of the study?

This is a big one.

I saw a post recently claiming that almost 100% of runners are currently running with an injury.

Almost immediately, I called bull shit.

I replied to the post, expressed my concerns with that assertion, and engaged in a short, and very civil, discussion with the poster.

He cited some research, both scientific and anecdotal, showing that in Olympic-level elite runners and triathletes, the vast majority (>90%) report training while managing an injury.

Olympic-level athletes, especially in an Olympic year, are not exactly an accurate representation of the running population at large.

Now, I’m not saying that just because you or I don’t match up to the population being studied the research doesn’t apply to us.

It may. It may not.

But if the population studied is not at all similar to the population that you are a part of, the conclusion may not be relevant to you.

  • Are there limitations to the study?

The answer to this question is pretty much always yes.

But the key here is assessing how the limitations impact the results.

When it comes to studies looking at lower-carb diets, or reduced carbohydrate intake during activity, the studies are pretty conclusive: performance is inhibited without carbs.

So the science is clear then, right?

More carbs, better performance?

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Fat adaptation is a process.

It doesn’t happen in a few weeks. And the needle barely moves in a few months.

So when a study limits carbohydrate intake, either in the form of daily consumption or fuel during exercise, over the course of several weeks, there is only going to be one outcome: inhibited performance.

Now, am I just saying these because I’m a big fan of the low-carb lifestyle and a proponent of fat adaptation?

But it’s virtually impossible to look at the body of research currently available and say that it’s giving fat adaptation a fair shake.

And that’s not me dogging on the science.

Setting up a good study to accurately test the impact of a reduced carb diet long-term would be challenging, to say the least, for a whole host of reasons.

But simply dismissing the approach due to lack of scientific research due to obvious limitations of the studies conducted to date doesn’t seem like fat adaption has been given a fair shake either.

  • We are all n=1.

Running science is complicated, to say the least.

Just saying

Everybody is different and every body is different.

Sure, in general, we are all way more alike than we are different.

But that doesn’t mean that we are exactly alike, especially when we start breaking it down to our physiology.

Hormones. Genetics. Age. Sex. Diet. Lifestyle. Sleep. Running history. Medical history. Goals. Mindset.

There are no shortage of variables in play, both macro and micro, that impact how you’re body works.

Am I saying that running science is pointless because we are all unique and delicate snowflakes?

But just because something works for me doesn’t mean it will work for you.

And vice versa.

And, maybe most importantly, just because a quality scientific study says one thing doesn’t mean that it’s a universal truth.

Again, that’s now how running science works.

You are an experiment of one. I’m an experiment of one.

We all need to be willing to try different things, and different approaches, to ultimately determine what works best for each of us.

Running Science is a Good Thing

Hopefully, this post isn’t coming across as me dumping on science.

I’m a huge science fan!

Just remember that running science is a process that will likely never be complete.

We are always learning new things.

Embrace the science. Learn from it.

Just don’t follow it blindly.

Because even the best studies aren’t going to be perfect across the board and for every situation 100% of the time.

Listening to running science is a good thing, just don't treat it as gospel! #runchat Share on X

How do You Handle New Pieces of Running Science?

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