How to recover and mistakes in interpreting research
by on Monday, October 13, 2014  (6 comments)

This week, I read several interesting things but I think two topics works well for these posts. If you disagree with me, feel free to say so in the comments or contact me via the contact form or any other place you can find me.

For this week, I'd like to focus on two things: recovery and interpreting research. I think recovery is especially an important topic right now as many of us are finishing up our racing seasons and looking toward 2015. As for interpreting research, it's always difficult. Conflicting studies, our own personal biases, confusing technical language. There are many barriers. Personally, I'm always trying to guard against these mistakes but I'm not perfect. We all fall into these traps from time to time, no matter how careful we are, and it's always good to get a reminder to be on guard.

How to recover

The people I'm coaching are finding out or soon will find out how seriously I'm taking recovery this year. It's going to be a bigger focus than I've made it in prior years because I think that post-season recovery is the first key to success going into the next season. I've been a little lax in the past about it but not this year. I'm going to be as serious about this as I am about peak training. You need to recover completely or you're not going to be successful next year.

What does this mean, though? A lot of people can't imagine taking time off of running completely. I'll be the first to admit that I'm the poster boy of this. To me, what it means is don't run if you don't want to. If you do want to, purposely limit your volume and intensity for a while and treat it as recreation, not training. Enjoy yourself and don't worry about your next race or season.

Most important, even if you're going to do absolutely no running, don't do nothing. Remain active. This also goes for when you need some extra recovery during a training season. Whether via running or some form of cross training, you'll recover more rapidly and completely if you keep active.

Here's a discussion of this point. It also has some good points about icing and anti-inflammatories. There are always cases where any or all of these things are warranted but, for general recovery or in many cases for recovery even from specific injuries, it's very possible you'll recover more quickly and completely without the ice and anti-inflammatories and with some level of activity.

Interpreting research

I read a lot of research. Every week, I'm reading several papers, articles and various other pieces on research. Sometimes straight from the source, sometimes someone else's analysis, often both straight from the source and an outsider's analysis.

I have to say, it's not easy reading research. Studies seem to contradict each other often. Especially if reading straight from the source, the language is often tough to get through. Most importantly in my opinion, we always bring in our preconceived notions and biases. It's hard for me to read an article on HIIT training without looking for where the study that says it's the next great thing had flaws or a research paper on a study that found aerobic exercise improves our cognitive abilities without wanting to gloss over any flaws in the study.

However, if we want to get the most out of what we're reading, we must guard against these things. We're humans and we're not perfect but, the more we can watch for these things and guard against them, the better we can do in making the most of what we're reading.

On that note, here are some things you can watch for in your own reading and in the analysis of others. If you ever see me falling into these traps, please let me know. Again, I'm not perfect and I will never claim to be. I try to guard against these pitfalls and I hope that's clear in my writing but I suffer from these shortcomings just like everyone else.

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I love reading new studies and gathering the *latest & greatest* advice. Sometimes you look at how they set up the study and you just know that it wasn't foolproof. Sometimes they really can't say doing X is positively the reason why we found a cooresponding increase in Y because they couldn't hold everything in the study constant. It's a good excercise in using your best judgement and trying something new out for yourself.

If it weren't for this I probably would still be taking anti inflammatories like candy. In reality I rarely feel better after taking them. I think research helps us to question old beliefs and try new things. Sometimes you stumble on a winner and it makes it all worthwhile.

I'd rather have someone take a chance on new research and find out it didn't work than stick 100% to the same routine. Change is a part of growth! Set backs are rich learning opportunites.

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I'm with you, I love reading all the studies I can find. It's really fascinating to see what research is being done and what it's finding. My only concern is that we read these the right way. I see a few things that people frequently do:

1) Take every study as the gospel. The latest study says long runs are useless? I'm never doing a long run again! New study: long runs are the best thing we can do? Two long runs a week! First, read every study with a skeptic's eye. Ask what confounding factors may be out there. A big factor in the distance running world is that we train for years, with year after year building on top of each other. 8-12 week studies can't measure those effects. Second, take each study as another factor on a large body of evidence. Consider the different methods used, different variables measured and look for the big picture, not just the little detail of a single study.

2) Try to apply our preconceived notions to the study. If a study doesn't support what you already believe, you find all the faults and don't look for the good aspects or consider what it might teach you about your beliefs. If it does support what you believe, you overlook the faults and trumped it as proof. This is an easy trap to fall into. We all do it at times but it's something we should pay attention to and try to guard against.

I definitely would rather take a chance with new knowledge garnered from the research as long as it's built on top of strong foundational, historically proven knowledge. The key is to not bandwagon on the studies but also not discount anything that doesn't fit in your nice little world out of hand. It's threading a needle but I think the right balance can be very beneficial. As you surely know, I'm always looking for ways to improve. Some of it comes from ideas other coaches have shared with me, some comes from studies. If you keep doing the same thing forever or if you jump from one bandwagon to the next, you're not going to improve.

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I agree with both of your points (recovery and research). As far as the research, I tell my clients (I am fitness instructor) to take the latest and greatest articles with a grain of salt. Every person and every body is different. We have to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. We will gather so much more from that than reading an article based on a potentially flawed study (one that will most likely be contradicted within the year). Don't get me wrong, there is a lot to be learned from reading them. We just have to remember that we can take what we need from it. It's not all or nothing.

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Brenda, that's right. The latest study is good to know about but needs to be taken in a broader context. Otherwise, we end up like Lewis Black (it's more funny listening to him say it with his over the top voice than reading it):

The people who told us about sun block were the same people who told us, when I was a kid, that eggs were good. So I ate a lot of eggs. Ten years later they said they were bad. I went, "Well, I just ate the eggs!" So I stopped eating eggs, and ten years later they said they were good again! Well, then I ate twice as many, and then they said they were bad. Well, now I'm really f***ed! Then they said they're good, they're bad, they're good, the whites are good, th-the yellows - make up your mind! It's breakfast I've gotta eat!

That's funny as a joke but that's what I've been watching in the running and broader fitness community. There's a certain segment that yo-yo's between different extremes based on what the latest study says with no consideration of where that fits into the broader context of both research and real world experience of what works. Shoes over the past 5 years or so would be a great example. Minimal goes crazy after Born to Run, now maximal is going nuts. How about different shoes for different people and there's a place for them all? The question shouldn't be which is best for everyone because there is no best for everyone. It should be which is best for you and how do you determine that.

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Maybe older people have a slight advantage over younger generations in not falling for every trendy new study because we saw how our grandparents lived. At least that's what I think when I read some of these new trendy studies. My grandparents managed without anti-inflammatory medications, they cooked and ate natural foods and by necessity had to walk and do a lot more manual labor than we do. My grandfather couldn't afford to take a day off and rest his sore legs or back or whatever hurt that day. He just kept working, climbing trees and picking fruit all day. I remember my grandparents soaking their feet in warm water at the end of the day. They never took medication for pain. Maybe they didn't take every little ache and pain so seriously. Sore muscles are a part of life. They'll get better. Or maybe they were more patient and didn't expect to find an instant cure for everything that hurt. They relied on their bodies to heal sore muscles and other minor aches and pains.

Staying active definitely helps the body heal. Every running injury I've had, running has helped it heal. Even just walking helps if it's too painful to run. Blood flow to the injured area is improved when you're moving and that helps injuries heal. It's when I didn't run that aches and pains seem to linger and even get worse. I've used ice many times on injuries, but how often have I not used ice and it still healed just as well? Maybe, if this new study is accurate, it even healed faster without the ice. Who knows. But I think we just have to use our common sense and think back to our grandparents and great grandparents' generations to put things in perspective sometimes. Popping a bunch of anti-inflammatory medications to heal a strain or sprain or other muscle pain never made any sense to me. I hate taking any medication, including supplements or vitamins (I don't take any, never have) but I've known since my best friend in college went to medical school that every medication has to be filtered out of your body by your liver. That includes excessive amounts of vitamins and supplements. Who needs 4,000% (or some ridiculous amount) of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B? Probably no one. But if you look at some of trendy energy drink concoctions that's what's in them. Most anti-inflammatory medications are very hard on the liver. Over time they can cause serious liver damage... Sore muscles, strains, sprains, and all the other running injuries will heal eventually and they won't kill you. But you can't live without a liver. That's my main reason for staying away from the quick fix of Advil... That, and I hate swallowing pills.

But I do have to admit, I fell for the minimal shoe trend. After running with an achy Achilles for months and spending way too much money on shoes that lasted only a few hundred miles, I bought shoes with a bit more cushion and an 8mm heel drop that have lasted over 1,000 miles. My Achilles and bank account are happy again. I'm not going for the platform running shoe trend.

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I would agree in general, though there are always exceptions and I also think your definition of "older" matters. I see a lot of Baby Boomers who will believe whatever spin is put on whatever the latest study that came out is. I actually think later generations in some ways do better because they are more distrusting.

The main thing I want to see people do is think critically. You don't have to become a cynic but realize that science isn't perfect. It's basically a series of experiences. Each experience builds upon the previous to expand our knowledge. No one experience tells us all we need to know and we shouldn't be surprised when some experiences appear to contradict others.

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