If I had to pinpoint one skill that I’m good at in an academic setting, it’s that of coalescing information. I love the feeling of sifting through all of the academic research available, making sense of it, and then connecting it to the practical world. The feeling of connecting disparate ideas is something that I’ll never grow tired of.

So when Patrick Ward passed around this research review on Cigarette smoking enhancing endurance performance, I couldn’t help but be drawn in.

So how does smoking some cigs improve performance?

Smoking 10 or more cigarettes per day is associated with an average hemoglobin increase of 3.5% compared with nonsmoking controls, a change which can be maintained simply by continuing the treatment regimen.10 In fact, older people with longer smoking histories have higher hemoglobin levels, indicating a possible dose-dependent effect.10 The hemoglobin increases may be further enhanced with add-on therapy of ethanol, which also appears to act in a dose-dependent manner.10

So we start off with a steady and sustained 3.5% increase in hemoglobin levels thanks to smoking. But the benefits don’t end there, instead Myers points out that smoking can increase lung volume as well as helping control and reduce weight.


But, as I hope is obvious, the author of the review, freely admits that while each of these individual studies and ideas is correct, the idea that smoking improves performance is laughable.

Yet, one could pick and choose several studies to develop an argument based entirely on research that smoking could be used to enhance endurance performance. His point is that, there’s often a tendency to selectively report studies in a  review because of the overwhelming amount of research out there.

When we take a step away from the research world, the problem gets even worse. Check out any pop science book and it’s written as an argument for the authors main thesis. The advantage a pop science book has is there are no individuals double checking the argument. It’s up to the reader to decide whether it has merit or not and most readers aren’t equipped scientifically or inclined enough to dig through the citations.

So what we’re left with, often, is a book with some legitimate science thrown in, but an ignoring of the studies or experience that might contradict the main argument of the book or piece.

And if we look at coaching, the same thing applies. As I mentioned in a recent blog, it’s easy to fall in love with ideas that sound sciency for the simple sake of their complicated and cited work. It’s incredibly easy to justify the workout or practice we are doing by selectively identifying research that back up our argument.

As coaches, our job is to filter the BS. As I mentioned in my book, I tend to evaluate ideas based on a concept described to me by Dr. Jason Winchester, evaluating the research, real world application, and theory to decide if a concept passes muster.

Micro to Macro or Macro to Micro?
Beyond that, the Cigarette review makes another important point.  We often have this idea of breaking down performance into it’s components. One classic example is that we know oxygen carrying capacity is related to endurance performance, so we assume that if we can build that ability, then endurance improves. So we might spend hours trying to figure out how to get a bump in EPO, so that we get more red blood cells.

While the theory is sound, when we do this, we make a lot of assumptions along the way. We assume that getting a bump in EPO in this individual will translate to an increase in RBC. We then assume that this bump in RBC will improve VO2max, or economy, or any other contributor to performance in classic exercise physiology. We then assume that this will give a bump in actual performance, whether it’s a 5k or a marathon.

This is just a basic example, but the more assumptions we make, the more we tend to ignore secondary effects that might accompany the change.  The end goal becomes change this microscopic change (EPO boost) without much consideration to the global picture.

The smoking and endurance review points out the fault in always using such logic. Cigarette smoking improves EPO and in turn RBC output, so it must be a good thing.

Now, you might think, “well duh!” that’s obvious. But how many people considered this micro-macroscopic dilemma when they started touting anti-oxidants a decade ago as a good thing because they took care of free radicals?  Not many. The reason? It made sense when the focus was very narrow. It’s when our focus gets caught in an extreme that we tend to make these errors.

How many times have you heard coaches obsess over simple items like hemoglobin, hematocrit, vitamin D, ferritin levels, and on and on. It happens, we get obsessed with micro level numbers.

As a coach, researcher, or simply as a person, developing this ability to zoom in and out, narrowing and expanding your scope back and forth is a requirement. The ability to shift focus gives you the ability to minimize the impact of over/under focusing.

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