Applying science one reader at a time
August is now coming to a close, and it has been a bumper month here on the site. With the IAAF World Champs and Bolt likely to break records, we were anticipating the usual buzz that follows him and his performances, but we never could have foreseen the public interest in the sad story of Caster Semenya. Our pages on that story have been viewed more than any other pages here in our 2.5 year history. So it was that sometime on Wednesday night, The Science of Sport had its 1,000,000th visitor. It would have happened eventually, but the interest in Semenya's story made it happen a lot quicker. The hype has died down a bit for now, but we fully expect it to rise to fever pitch once again when the IAAF releases its final verdict on whether or not she is eligible to compete against women.
Looking back - who knew?
When we started this site in April 2007, neither of us knew exactly where it was going to go. All we knew was that we had a passion for bringing the science out of the lab and applying it to the sports we all love and watch---hence our vision and mission. Since its inception we have grown to what you see here today, and now is a great time to thank all of our devoted and new readers who keep us going with amazing comment and great insight.
On the application of science, I was at the inaugural International Sports Science + Sports Medicine Conference two weeks ago in Newcastle, UK. It was a small but great meeting of both sports scientists and sports physicians, and there was much discussion and debate about how the scientists actually get the hard data from the lab out into the field so that athletes and coaches alike can access and use this information. Thanks to decisions made by the organizers, there was ample time for Q&A and panel discussions, which went over very well amongst the delegates. The conference is meant to be hosted in Newcastle again next year, so start planning your trips now!
Trickle down science
In so many sports the coaches are the link between the lab and the athlete, and so as sports scientists we have a role to play in getting the correct and usable information to the coaches (and athletes by extension). However it is always a struggle between the two, because the scientists in white lab coats look at the coaches and think, "What do you know, I have a PhD. . .," while the coaches look at the scientists and reply, "What do you know? We are the ones working with the athletes." So somehow we have to get it right and get the hard evidence and science from the lab into the coaches' hands so they can apply it. Sadly, though, no one seems to be doing an entirely adequate job of this.
Often times the findings from a study are interpreted to the extreme by the public, and a great example of this is new evidence on training with low muscle glycogen concentrations. This is John Hawley's work that has shown that when cyclists complete some training sessions with a low muscle glycogen concentration (which is induced by a prior training session), the signal to make adaptations might be enhanced. However, as is the case with most good studies, it was performed in very controlled and "sterile" conditions. This is good science, and is imperative if one wants to be able to interpret the data and actually see what happened in the experiment.
But you can imagine the high interest among coaches and athletes that training with a low muscle glycogen content might enhance the training adaptations. Immediately coaches were prescribing low carbohydrate diets to produce the low muscle glycogen levels, and immediately the application of this concept was lost, as athletes were getting low quality workouts because they felt so terrible from their low carbohydrate diets! There is a step missing here in which the real findings from studies like these must be interpreted outside of the lab setting, and the data must be translated to something the coaches and athletes can use in a meaningful way to improve their own training and performance.
Dietetics + Physiology = Bad advice
To all the dieticians amongst our readers, I promise I am not singling out your profession, but often you are asked by coaches and magazines to produce material on fluid replacement, and the result is never pretty. At least in my department at UIC (Kinesiology and Nutrition), our nutrition students are not given any applied (exercise) physiology, and instead are taught about fluid balance only from a clinical perspective. It should be noted that this is entirely appropriate since most of these students will work in the clinical setting, and only a small minority will go on to work with athletes, and even then they will probably further their training with courses or degrees in which they learn about exercise science. But when the clinical info is applied to sport, the result is this, from a dietician writing for a multi-sport coaching newsletter. In its entirety it makes us cringe, but in many ways she is just repeating what she was taught, instead of understanding the physiology of it, much like another section in the same newsletter written by a triathlon coach.
Neither seems to understand the concepts at play, and perhaps to practice their chosen professions they do not need to---which leaves the ball in the court of the the scientists to communicate accurately the evidence to the field. But it is easier said than done, and for a number of different reasons such as time, motivation, and even responsibility. When the chancellor of the university signs your paycheck and your job security depends on your publication record (and not the number of blog posts you do!), it is a compelling argument why one should do more than that.
The nature of physiological regulation
Almost two years ago, perhaps before many of our current readers came on board, we did a series on dehydration after the Chicago Marathon experienced an unseasonably warm race. There were several parts to the series, and so please refer back to it for the full details and very detailed posts, but at the heart of understanding fluid balance is the basic physiological concept of how the body regulates and "defends" different variables. Effectively a particular thing is regulated so that another thing---or homeostasis in the bigger picture---is maintained. That is the lab part of the equation, what we can work out from doing elegant experiments, but it does not end there because as scientists we have to find a way to translate that information so it can be applied.
Fluid balance: what do we regulate?
The regulation of fluid balance in the body is complex in its details, but at its core it is the same: one thing is regulated and the body responds in many ways to protect it. In this case the regulated variable is the concentration of your blood, or the plasma osmolality. As you exercise and sweat, it rises, and so you first stop producing urine. . .and as you continue to lose fluid you then become quite thirsty. As you ingest a bit of fluid it helps balance out the plasma osmolality so that it does not get too high.
The result of all this? You actually protect the volume of fluid that is inside the cells by balancing the plasma osmolality, but another thing that happens is that you lose some weight, and this is the important part that dieticians and coaches and kinesiology majors everywhere are not taught: body weight is not regulated during exercise. It is important enough to repeat: body weight is not regulated, and so your body does not care if you lose a few kilograms or pounds or pints or stone (depending on where you reside!). It simply does not feature, and so to tell people to replace their weight losses or to use this as a gauge is entirely incorrect as your fluid balance operates independent from your weight. Your body has an entire mechanism that regulates your plasma osmolality---your thirst. but if you want to read more about that then just click back to October 2007 to tackle the details.
On our way to 2,000,000!
So in the mean time we will carry on and hope to have our 2,000,000th visitor sooner than another two years, and one thing we can anticipate with confidence is that if Gebrselassie breaks his 2:03:59 world record at the Berlin Marathon in just three weeks, we are going to be a lot closer. He has stated that he will make yet another attempt on the record, and in many ways there is no reason why he cannot break it again. Of course it will be difficult and he must get his pacing exactly right, but over his long career he has proved that he is willing and able to punch through to the next level. If he does, you know where to find the best analysis of that performance!
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Saturday, August 29, 2009
Applying science one reader at a time