Why BulletProof Diet/Coffee is based on a fraud

I apologize to those who come here for good track or athletic related training advise. I normally save my rants for my favorite subject of Crossfit, but bare with me for this post as I take on something that has been bugging me for the past few weeks. Once again, it's from someone who makes claims that running the crazy high mileage of 50mpw is unhealthy, but that's not my gripe.

I’m not normally one to venture into the world of diet. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important, or that it matters, as it most certainly does. In fact, I love looking at diet and performance and understanding what matters and what is simply hogwash. Instead, I don’t like venturing into the world of dietary advice because it’s a place rife with pseudoscience, exaggerations, and lots of polarized arguments.  I hate the fact that we vilify things acting like they are the devil, only to switch what is hated a decade later. In many senses, talking about diet is like talking about politics, no one really wins and no one is ever really convinced.

In fact one of my favorite charts in grad school was a list of dietary trends where we flip flopped back and forth between what macronutrient (fat or carbs) was out of favor. The professor traced it back to the 1850’s and it was a great demonstration of this polarized behavior and cyclical nature of dietary trends.

But I’m not hear to talk about diet. I’m here to talk about a diet, but not the merits of that diet. I feel like commenting because, while the information is out there, no one really seems to give it credence.

Without further ado, let’s talk about Bulletproof coffee and the Bulletproof diet.
I’m not going to discuss the scientific merits or lack thereof of the diet, but instead look at it as an example of marketing, psychological bias, and why people believe dumb things.

Uncertainty, Randomness, and Over-control in Training

Control the Contrallables

It’s what we preach in coaching and in life. Don’t sweat the small things that don’t have an actual impact on our well being or life. It’s one of the simplest and most profound lessons one needs to learn. And it makes perfect sense.

But like most things, can we take this concept to far? In the world of sport, we like to live in a world where we try to control every variable we can. We go out to Stanford to run in perfect weather, we set up rabbits so that the pace variance is minimal, and we write out months of plans trying to design the perfect training plan to reach out goals. Coaching is a game of control.

We ask our athletes to perform repeats at certain speeds with exact recoveries on a measured course. It’s all about control. Which seemingly eliminates chance, decreases the amount of uncertainty, and gives us the best opportunity to succeed.

All of those are valid points, and I would argue are true.

But have we gone too far?

A World of Uncertainty:
            What we do when we control is set up defined constraints. Our athletes are allowed to function within this box of constraints that we create. It’s a great situation when trying to elicit some sort of physiologic adaptation, but the reality is this: when we create constraints we also restrict autonomy.

            With heavily constrained programs, we’re reducing the athletes’ autonomy in practice to virtually nothing. There are few decisions to be made. It’s simply run X workout as assigned. Because practice is not truly a competition, and if paces are assigned, one doesn’t have to worry about what their teammates are doing around them. They can feel relatively certain that no one is going to throw in a hard surge midway through the mile repeats. They can feel pretty good that plus or minus a few seconds people will run the prescribed time until perhaps the last reps.

The problem is that races, games, sports aren’t like this. Yes, they have there own constraints in terms of race distance, game rules, and so forth, but there’s a degree of variability that one can’t control. Even with rabbits, there’s no knowledge of what the other competitors might do, how the pace plays out, or the variations that occur within.

Furthermore, we have to make decisions based on not only the race itself, but also what those are doing around us. When do these decisions generally occur? During the middle to latter portion of the race when stress levels and fatigue are at their highest.

The contrast is paramount. In practice we are required to process different information and make different decisions than in race situations.

In the world of ecological psychology, this is referred to as making happening versus doing decisions. We can look at a tradition laboratory based run to exhaustion test where you might do a VO2max test where you run on the treadmill at ever increasing speeds until you make the decision to stop. This is a happening decision. There’s no active adjustment, it’s one choice you make. On the flip side, races are generally doing decisions. We decide whether to follow the leader, surge when someone picks up the pace, speed up or slow down once fatigue goes, or when to unleash our final kick. We are actively making the choice to do something.

If you don’t think this matters, consider the research on fatigue in exercise science. For years, we had a simple paradigm of how fatigue worked because it was based on tasks to failure studies. It wasn’t until relatively recently that our brilliant researchers realized that things might be just a bit different if we took into account the fact that races are paced and self-controlled. The model for fatigue has entirely shifted.

What we are doing is training for a different test. The test we are taking doesn’t entirely match up with the studying we are doing for it. Perhaps from a physiological standpoint it does, but not from a decision-making and challenge standpoint. In school terms, it’s like we spent our time memorizing definitions for our history exam, when the exam was going to be an essay. Yes, we were studying and gaining the knowledge and there is an indirect transfer, but it wasn’t in the direction in which we were going to be graded in our exam.

While not trying to get too deep here, Dr. Jim Denison, who has done some work with the Canadian Athletics teams, uses the ideas of a powerful thinker named Foucault to look at the mismatch of training demands and racing. In this model, we have an interaction of time, space, and power.

Briefly, these concepts act as constraints to our athletes. So where we train creates natural constraints. For instance, training on a track creates the constraint of running around in a circle at a certain distance where we have norms of running in lane or doing intervals at set known markers. We have certain starting and stopping points that are well established. From a power standpoint, when we train in groups, we have designations that naturally occur. We have leaders in our group, who if someone “below” them took the lead, there would be an instant upset in power. There’s also the power relationship with the coach in the way that they dictate workouts.

Lastly, from a time standpoint, we are encapsulated by time in our sport. We are inundated with pace information from splits, garmin data, and so forth. This creates a natural constraint as we have norms and rely on external information to judge most of our progress and effort levels. One could argue that this constraint, which has gotten worse through technology, has reduced the ability to have the internal clock or the ability to read ones own internal sensation of effort.

The basis is similar to the concepts discussed here. We are constraining and controlling our athletes, not giving them the ability to grow and adapt in a variety of situations. We are creating athletes without the autonomy to grow, develop, and make decision on their own.

Picking up clues:
The way we make decisions in sport, whether it’s to speed up or slow down in running or to pass the ball in soccer is by perception of action possibilities in the environment. Our ability to discern what opportunities are available matters. So for a football star running back, he’s able to notice several different routes to take and almost instantly perceive and act upon the route that provides the best “hole” for him to run through. While our sub-par running back takes longer to discern the possibility or may even miss that hole entirely.

This ability to pick up “clues” from the environment matters. When we train in constrained and controlled environments, we’re not working on our ability to discern and bias ourselves towards the best decision to be made. In practice in a controlled environment, we might miss the repercussions of a subtly varied pace or the ability to recognize and anticipate someone else’s final drive to the finish.

Uncertainty, randomness, and so forth therefore should not be seen as things to eliminate all together, but instead as an additional way to stress the athlete to adapt.  They put us in a situation not only physiologically but also psychologically to be better prepared for a variety of situations we will encounter during performance.

 We can see the repercussions in life and in sport. In sport, we’ve all dealt with the athlete who can perform perfectly under controlled situations like set up time trials, but would fail once they got to the unfamiliar situation of a tactical trial. In life, many diseases we have now are diseases of modernity, where it is the lack of stress that causes them. We don’t have enough variation, randomness, and stress from which to adapt off of. Or as Nassem Taleb points out:

“It is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things to make matters highly predictable in their smallest details. All that for the sake of comfort, convenience, and efficiency.”

This eternal search for efficiency has consequences. In the realm of health and in life it can create a complacency and lack of ability to adapt in disparate situations.

So What?
Don’t get me wrong; I love planning out the physiological adaptations in a systematic way. It’s a cornerstone to coaching, but perhaps we need just enough randomness, uncertainty, and flat out not knowing to challenge our athletes in a different way. After all, as was the theme in a wonderful conference I participated in put on by the Seattle Sounders, we’re trying to build Anti-Fragile athletes. Based on Nassim Taleb’s latest book, the idea is to build athletes who thrive off of uncertainty.

Therefore, while we shouldn’t overreact and get rid of the physiological approach to training, and we shouldn’t give up the wonderfully useful concept of controlling the controllables, perhaps we could build better prepared athletes and people with a degree of randomness. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathtub, but instead interject a degree of uncertainty to your training.

Early in my career I made the mistake of trying to create athletes who were physiologically well adapted but could not thrive in randomness. They could kill the time trial, but would crater when it came to the unfamiliar territory of championship racing. This isn’t a problem in certain circles of elite performance where athletes and coaches will contrive to set up races in the exact way they want them, but in the world of tactics, uncertainty, and stress.

But in the real world, it is an issue. And it stems from the dynamics of the athlete and the training we set up. As Denison alludes to in his work on Foucault, is it no wonder that athletes sometimes falter when they are used to turning their brains off and being challenged in only the direction of effort, where they are left with “happening” decisions instead of “doing” ones?

Instead of constraining our athletes, challenge them in ways to grow and develop. There’s an unending amount of ways to change the power dynamics during training. Open up the constraints and challenge athletes to make decisions. Then perhaps we can create athletes who thrive in situations ranging from tactical affairs to one off time trials.

Coaching is all about manipulating the constraints you put on the athlete, to adapt and grow in the direction you desire. 

Everything you need to know about Doping Scandal in Track and Field


It’s been quite an interesting few days for the IAAF I imagine. Track and field has finally joined the ranks of cycling in terms of perceived doping and corruption issues. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me catch you up on the past few days.

  • ·      German TV station drops bombshell of a documentary
  • ·      Insiders claim that Russian Doping is about as systematic as the old East Germany regimes with things like:
    • o    enormous bribes to cover up positive tests
    • o   State supported doping
    • o   Allegations that the vast majority of Russian athletes are on drugs
    • o   The treasurer of the IAAF having to take a leave of absence because of his involvement
  • ·      Current president of IAAF’s son was involved in a deal to help Qatar gain the world championships in 2017 with the help of a 5 million dollar “bribe”.
  • ·      There is a list of 200+ names of abnormal blood results from 2006-08 that may or may not have been investigated by the IAAF.
    • o   On this list of abornmal blood results are Olympic champions, world record holders, athletes who won over 100+ gold medals at major championships.
  • o   Of this list Russia has over 50 names which isn’t surprising, while Kenya has 25, among others.
  • Several important members/associates of the IAAF have stepped down, taken a leave of absence, or just distanced themselves in some way (or told to..)
  • For good measure, throw in the smaller controversy at USATF convention where some seemingly back-handed deals went down, as always it appears.

In other words, shit has hit the fan in track and field.

All of this has occurred right after Seb Coe released his Athletics Manifesto that called for much stricter drug testing governance. I doubt Coe had any idea that a few days later his sport would face it’s biggest challenge perhaps ever. I wonder what Seb is thinking now about potentially signing up to deal with this mess of a sport?

Anyways, what I’d like to focus on is the doping aspect of the allegations. While I’m not some insider with secret knowledge, what I do think serves a purpose is looking at some of the ramifications of the recent news and what it actually means.

Tracking collegiate runners- sleep, stress, soreness, recovery and performance


I have a reputation, perhaps deservingly so, a scientific coach. The irony, is that while I use principles and blend knowledge and science into my coaching practices, it's not like we're sitting here measuring VO2max, or even caring about it honestly. As a person, I love crunching the numbers and the data that comes with it, but as a runner and coach, I kind of despise wearing a GPS watch and wouldn't be caught dead wearing a HR monitor.  These two inner self's battle each other a lot, but the practical one generally wins out.

Which brings me to my point. Although I love all of the gadgets, there are only a few that make it into my mainstay, like RunScribe described previously. The ones that make it give me actionable data that is easy to track and measure.

The problem with most data is that it's not actionable or its a pain to get people to use it. My goal is always to find ways to better my own coaching practice and understand things that might influence my athletes performance. Instead of hooking my athletes up to machines and making them lab rats (okay...we do that too...but only for research purposes!), I like finding ways of answering questions with data that is easy to take and understand.

This year, I wanted to answer the question of: What actually matters and how does it change?

I preach recovery and living the lifestyle of a runner to my team, and we know it makes a difference. But what I wanted to get at is how do those markers change over the course of a collegiate season. With college athletes, you are dealing with a wide range of stressors, so it's not simply go do the workout and then wait until they come the next day to practice.

What I wanted to get at is how does that change and can it give me a better understanding of how to modulate the workouts.

Understanding Data:
Over the next few paragraphs, I'm going to give you a sneak peak of the data that we collected. Why? Because I think it's really cool. And secondly, I like sharing things. Coaches who don't share and think they have a secret are ignorant to the process of coaching. I haven't had a chance yet to go back and do a comparison with workload, workout type, races and so forth, which is the next step.

So what we did was simply create a nice little app where athletes could rate a variety of measures on a 1-5 likert scale. Yes, it was all self-reported data, but again we are talking about something that college kids will fill out. Secondly, my college team is awesome. I don't have to worry about them filling out fake data or worrying about their coach seeing their sleeping habits. There's a level of trust. I had kids put 3hrs of sleep down and although that might not have been optimal, it was refreshing to see that they were honest about it and then tried to get better at it.

We tracked a range of things including:
RPE (Physical exertion of workout)
MPE (Mental exertion of workout)
Stress level
Energy level
Pop (springyness/how the legs felt)
Sleep quality
sleep hours
Overall performance (1-3 simple scale...below avg. average, and above average)

Your Brain on Altitude- How altitude can cause or prevent depression?


Altitude has this great mystique and allure in the world of distance running. The mystique has grown over the years. It started when we saw the impact altitude had on performance at the Mexico City Olympics. But it really took off when the East African onslaught of records occured, where we saw the impact training at altitude had on performance.

For many, altitude is the answer. They swear by it and do everything they can to get the benefits of natural EPO and Red Blood Cell production. Talk to any distance runner who is an advocate and they'll rattle off the number of sub 13 5k runners who lived at altitude and name Bob Kennedy and maybe a handful of others who did it without utilizing altitude.

Every year wanna-be distance stars flock to Flagstaff, Boulder, and Park City, Utah for the benefits of the thin air.

But, there's more to the picture. In my experience coaching elites, I've had athletes who were super responders to altitude, and those who had dreadful responses, all with more than adequate iron/ferritin levels. I've had athletes who were bad responders early in their career but positive responders later in their career.

In the research world, we've called this the responder versus non-responder phenomenon. There's some evidence that it's linked to genetic differences and speculation that even epigenetic changes could play a role. I've also speculated that responder/non-responder also is dependent on dose and frequency of training, as well as an ability to adapt to the stressor that is altitude.

In my own line of work, I've noticed distinct trends with athletes who had high stress responses, as indicated by things like cortisol levels, as more likely to fall into the non-responder category. For instance, I had one athlete with chronically high cortisol levels and anxiety issues who despite having a ferritin level well into the triple digits, did not respond well to altitude.

Altitude and Brain Chemicals
A recent theory throws an interesting wrench into the altitude question.

Apparently, the state of Utah has a suicide and depression problem. It's got some of the highest rates of suicide and depression and the country and for years no one understood why. Recently, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, Perry Renshaw, has posited a theory of why this paradox occurs.

Understanding the Mechanics of Fatigue


When we think of fatigue, we generally think of burning muscles, lactic acid building up, and several other descriptors that have rightly or wrongly entered the lingo of endurance athletes and coaches over the years. In essence though, fatigue is all about slowing down, or preventing that from happening.

From a coaching standpoint we often think of the physiologic items that either cause this slow down or prevent it. Traditional coaches might think of increases in VO2max, HR, or acidic conditions and think of ways to influence these physiologic changes that are going on. However, what we seldom think of or address is how fatigue manifests itself.

            We have all seen athletes start to change their form when the proverbial bear has jumped on someone’s back in the final portion of the race. Or as my college kids like to call, when someone “hits bricks.” You might see the athletes back arching, the turnover slowing, and the arms swing getting increasingly. But even before that point, there are subtle changes going on mechanically.

            These changes occur as the body tries to navigate the ever changing environment. Why do we start to swing our arms more forcefully? Simply because our stride is shortening under fatigue and we are trying to compensate by increasing our arm swing, hoping that it causes us to maintain stride length and/or speed. It’s all compensation for trying to keep things together.

Why every person matters- Motivation Contagion

As a coach, I tend towards obsessing over the workout details and my first love has always been the physiology behind those details. The workout planning and details are what initially drew my to coaching. However, in a team environment, these details matter little unless everyone buys in and stays motivated to pursue the end goal to their fullest extent.

If you are a part of the University of Houston Cross-Country team you have to sit through a couple presentations a year where I ramble on about some scientific concept that intrigues me at the moment. I like to make the athletes part of the process so that they understand why they are doing what they are doing. If you were a part of the team this year, you would have heard about this study...a lot! It wasn't about training, peaking, muscle fiber types, or any other related physiology related topic. Instead it was about the realm of science often left for psychologist, sport or otherwise, called motivation.

It turns out that motivation can function almost like a disease. It is contagious and can work its way through your peer group in the same way that the flu potentially can. To coaches, teachers, or anyone who deals with motivating groups of students this shouldn't sound too surprising. In sports, we refer to this as "team culture."

The surprising thing is how contagious it is.

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