Shallow Thinking, Weak Thinking

There have been a numerous published articles and podcasts where authors, interviewers, and guests have expounded upon their opinions as it relates to the use of “technology” for training guidance (a couple of the many examples can be found most recently here, and as examples here and here). Specifically, it is argued, that such use can often be a negative influence on an athlete’s training progression and that the use of devices and calculations “get in the way” of “real” training. Often, these opinion-holders recommend the exclusive use of “perceived exertion” to gauge effort in training sessions. Often, these opinion-holders have degrees in Sports Physiology and either are doing or have done research in the field. Often, these opinion-holders have never successfully coached, trained, or even have (or had) relationships with Olympic and International level athletes. Often, I just shake my head in disbelief and disappointment at how “pseudo” the pseudo-science of Sports Physiology and endurance training seems to be progressing.**

shallow thinking

This sort of thing is the equivalent in the hard sciences of not just ignoring a an entire channel of relevant data but not even bothering to measure it- the sort of thing that will also make your work irrelevant if not embarrassing if you tried to present it to colleagues in the field (not so, apparently, for the pseudo-science of Sports Physiology where many in the field are derisive toward the use of heart rate monitors and gps watches and depend on the highly flawed concept of (and use of) rating of perceived exertion (RPE)). As an example, if I were to be measuring the influence of temperature on some phenomenon where temperature is known to hold relevance (like the reaction rate of most chemical reactions) and presented data on the “perceived” temperature when I could easily measure the temperature in the experiment, my hard science colleagues would find it laughable. Same goes here in understanding and directing endurance training for the measurement of things like heart rate, pace (or graded pace), and blood lactate. Yet there is increasing derision of the use of such measures among certain segments of the “profession”. Of course the measured temperature for a chemical reaction rate in the above example is much more accurately defined than the relationship of instantaneous heart rate of an exercising individual to training work load but ignoring the heart rate data channel altogether (as many profess one should do) is just throwing away important data- data that many of the most successful elite endurance athletes (and their coaches) depend on for training plan structure, monitoring, and adjustment.

I call Sports Physiology a pseudo science because, just like medical science and nutrition science, the researchers in the field are left almost entirely disabled by the fact that they are unable to conduct the experiments that would allow for any sort of reliable insight into a concept let alone develop a firm base for causality (something that requires a detailed understanding of the associated mechanism(s) that are in play). Given the high variability of the response of the human body to training stimuli, the difficulty in measuring anything linked to a mechanistic process that would describe training progression, and that there exist significant ethical issues associated with experiments that likely would provide the beginning bits of causality (i.e. taking subjects (aka “specimens” in the hard science world) to failure), all of these conspire to make any attempts to discern even major, large effect, differences in efficacy of training programs or processes essentially impossible.

Perhaps there will be experimental breakthroughs in Sports Physiology by utilizing the increasing understanding of genes and gene expression that may lead to better guidance on endurance sport training for individuals, but that sort of thing is a ways off in my opinion.

Where does this leave us? Well, there is one approach that at least has a basis in sound correlation between program/process and results- the group analysis of the years of documented training of elite performers such as described in numerous studies published by Stephen Seilier and his colleagues (among others). By analyzing the data in training logs and the training progressions employed by these high-performing endurance athletes one can develop a sense of what works and what does not work as it is related to success in a given endurance sport. These studies lead to some general principles and guiding precepts that can be adopted by individuals for development of their training programs.

Unfortunately, some in the field derisively call these general principles and guiding precepts “dogma” and project an attitude of just brushing away the only defensible source for training program guidance. In it’s place they provide “true” dogma- dogma in the religious sense, i.e. entirely unsupportable assertions apparently fabricated out of some sort of other-worldly “vision” they seem to have experienced. As a trained scientist I find this to be, on the surface, laughable, but also, in a deeper way, very much insulting and, more importantly, troubling for the field. It has been damaging enough that the Journals in the Sports Physiology (and Medical “Science” and Nutrition “Science” fields) produce reams and reams of unsupportable “conclusive” findings to now see “religious” arguments being made. It is a sad state of affairs. It is a state of “Shallow Thinking, Weak Thinking”, and we should expect much more from those actively engaged in the research in this field.

As an example of some of these training principles derived from actual experience with elite athletes, here is an article that analyzes an elite athlete’s entire competitive career. This athlete just happens to be the most successful winter endurance athlete of all time- and she has steadfastly and rigorously used heart rate training throughout her career.

Marit Bjorgen, the most successful endurance winter athlete of all time (and most successful winter athlete, period) winning a roller skiing race in the summer of 2017. Note the heart rate monitor strap and watch- something that Bjorgen has used continuously throughout her career to structure, monitor, and adjust her training program. Note also that Bjorgen came back to racing after having a child in 2016 to win numerous World Cups and to win two golds, a silver, and two bronze medals at the 2018 Olympics.

weak thinking

Ok, so back to the use of “technology” in training. For runners, cross country skiers, and other endurance athletes, the heart rate monitor has been a central piece of “technology” that has been used to monitor and enable structured training. From the first clunky devices (Team Bumble Bee had a Polar Tunturi Pulser model- you had to lift your shirt to see the display on your chest) to the first wireless model (the Polar Sport Tester 3000 (Team Bumble Bee upgraded to this model in about 1984)), to the current models of heart rate monitors from many manufacturers, the heart rate monitor has become a common tool used by professional and amateur athletes alike. The use of a heart rate monitor in conjunction with measured physiologic “thresholds” has allowed athletes and coaches to accurately measure and structure training to allow for reliable training progression toward important goals. The key word here is “tool”- a device or implement used to carry out a particular function. The function of the heart rate monitor and the associated watch is to allow for real-time monitoring of heart rate, pace, and time as it relates to the training session structure and goals. It is not a task master or an evaluator of training or performance. The athlete (or athlete and coach for those fortunate enough to have a coach) is the task master and the one who evaluates the efficacy of any training regimen.

Given the large (and to some extent undefined) number physiologic variables that can play a role in how a training session goes, data channels other than heart rate are essential to understanding the results of the work undertaken. These include breathing rate, muscle comfort, restedness, among others. Taking account of all of the available data is critical to ensuring that one’s training is progressing as planned. The relationship between these many other variables and heart rate can be established by the individual athlete with good accuracy and this combined with use of one’s lactate threshold heart rate value gives an athlete a powerful toolbox to monitor, structure, and adjust training. How can this be “bad”?

Well, from some accounts you might think that the modern heart rate monitor/timing device is an evil actor that is preventing you from getting the most out of your training. Many of the issues that are brought up as it concerns heart rate-based training are the direct result of weak thinking on the part of the user. The concept that the use of a watch or heart rate monitor could be the origin of a bad workout is laughable. Rather it is clear that the issue with those who allow a specific pace or a specific heart rate to drive their workouts is a mental one not a “technology” one. With such weak thinking not only will the training be difficult (and likely not successful) but the mental fortitude required for effective racing will be highly compromised. No wonder there are so many reports of failed races by competitors who choose to use heart rate as a single controlling parameter rather than as a data channel to be taken together with a number of other factors (both measured and perceived) to regulate pace and determine in-race strategies.

So take those recommendations from so-called experts to “ditch the watch” with a fair share of doubt and determine for yourself exactly what it is that might be limiting your progress. I think that if you think hard about this you will find that the heart rate monitor or GPS watch or whatever other technology you are using to help with your training is not the culprit. The culprit is you and your ability to absorb and factor all the data channels available to you into an effective training and racing program. Don’t blame the technology it is simply a tool and not a “bad actor.” If you can’t out-think your watch you certainly are not going to have the mental fortitude to chip away at that wall between you and your goals.

A good review article (specific to ultra marathon training and racing) of the elements involved with heart rate training and some suggestions on how to integrate heart rate monitoring into a training program can be found here.

**Remember also that what I write in this blog is about the process an athlete might take toward attainment of excellence. Much of the argument against the use of “technology” in endurance sport training is directed towards “participants” not athletes. I colloquially define an athlete as someone who is striving towards excellence in their respective sport- that means someone who is driven to get the most out of their body and be competitive either overall or within an age group in competitions. For “participants”, those who are looking to experience an endurance sport and/or just finish a challenging event, perhaps intensive use of technology is not called for. However I will still argue that when utilized correctly and consistently, such technology can be a valuable tool, even for “participants.”



2 thoughts on “Shallow Thinking, Weak Thinking

  1. Thanks for putting it back up! Good points here – the distinction between ‘athlete’ and ‘participant’ is important, useful and valuable. I like you am interested in getting the most performance out of training and specifically how technology and science can contribute to getting the most bang for the buck, especially as we age. There is too much ‘no pain, pain no gain’ and ‘this is the way I/we have always done it’ out there. Thinking of starting a blog of my own to geek out on these topics. My best to both Bumble and Bee.

    • Hi Jay,

      Look forward to any ruminations you might have on the subject. It is an interesting area where we “oldsters” can experiment and develop workable training strategies where the output (performance) is not as critical as it was when we were youngsters trying to make National Teams. Still meaningful but not make-or-break for a career. So we can try various approaches with quite a bit of freedom and see what happens. I find it fun and enlightening.

      As far as the distinction between “athlete” and “participant”, this is something that is not often addressed but is central to any discussion of training for a masters athlete. There are very few masters athletes that actually train (in the rigorous sense of the meaning). Yet many try to apply training regimens that require intensive training over years (not weeks or months) in order for performance to respond. But at the same time these “athletes” never put a sufficient level of effort into whatever program they are following and therefore they end up being “participants” instead. And, of course, the expected performance is never achieved. 12 week, 24 week, even 48 week “programs” are essentially futile if one wants to compete at the international (and national) level. One must take a multi-year intensive approach- and hope that one’s body holds up and injuries are kept to a minimum.

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