Science Vs. Psychology – Which Can You Trust?

In the quest for better fitness and performance, many athletes mix conventional wisdom with new ideas and technology, hoping to find the right balance that gives them a competitive edge. That’s why we do warm-up and cool-down stretches before running, and try things like drinking beet juice before a bicycle race. Of course, one problem is that no amount of science can trump the power of psychology and positive thinking.

Case in point: The January 2012 issue of Outside magazine has an article on the 10 biggest fitness myths. For each myth “busted”, they cite reliable scientific studies, and offer explanations of why certain common fitness practices are either ineffective, or even detrimental to performance. From there, they offer alternate solutions. So far so good. But I happened to catch a Sony ad in Competitor magazine, featuring a short Q&A with Meb Keflezighi. Meb’s resume’ as a runner includes a silver medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics, first place overall for the 2009 New York Mararhon, 5th place in the 2010 Boston Marathon, and even a couple of records for standard running distances. He is clearly not an amateur, which makes his comments all the more interesting when questioned about recovery tips for runners. So I’m going to insert his responses into the facts surrounding the myths, which will only serve to muddy the waters even more.

The truth about stretching – it doesn’t necessarily prevent injuries or improve performance, but can actually lower your 10K time. According to physiologists, the act of stretching elongates muscle fibers, but triggers a “neuromuscular inhibitory response” which actually tightens the muscles to prevent them from over-stretching. The result? Less power. Even more interesting for those running for fitness rather than competition, large-scale studies have proven that stretching does not prevent common injuries associated with running.

Meb’s quote, (remember this is from a different magazine) – “I stretch before and after every workout, and recommend that all runners do this, regardless of age”. Granted, he doesn’t state what kind of stretches, whether active or dynamic, but he’s clearly a believer in stretching.

The truth about ice baths – they don’t speed recovery. Muscle damage is easy to measure, as the body’s response is the increase of creatine kinase. Verifying the efficacy of ice baths was as easy as having some runners do a particularly brutal workout, then give half of them a ten minute ice bath at 50 degrees. While they reported that they felt less sore than if they hadn’t taken a bath, their blood told a different story. Their levels of creatine kinase were no different than the control group that didn’t participate in the ice bath. The conclusion was that any gains are strictly in your head.

Meb’s quote – “If you want to take your recovery to the next level, I recommend waist down ice baths for 15 minutes at 55 degrees”. Again, myth or fact, he’s gotten results that 99.99% if the population never will.

So what should you do? First, locate a copy of the January, 2012 Outside if you haven’t already. The article itself if pretty interesting, and it’s all backed by scientific studies. Trust but verify, as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying. I was already aware of some of the issues they covered, while others caught me by surprise. And if there is a moral to be found in my article, it’s that you should do whatever works best for you, while avoiding potentially injurious activities. Finally, keep in mind that although scientists have not been able to find any physical cause and effect between performance and a favorite jersey or lucky socks, plenty of competitive athletes have, proving that attitude in all things contributes to success.

– Brian

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