The heavy breathing, as I found my seat on the plane, must have seemed like an appropriate invitation to start a conversation, as the man sitting behind me quipped “Did you run the marathon today?”
It was an appropriate question, given that I was on my way back from the race, although the breathing was the result of my unintentional arriving at the airport 30 minutes before the plane departed and the mad 400m dash to the gate that resulted from it. I replied “No. I was there watching. I coached one of the pro’s who raced,” Dissatisfied with me not being a real marathoner, he shifted his attention to the man next to me who piped up that he had completed the race in four and a half hours today.
As the two gentleman hit it off, the conversation quickly turned towards what the original man did. He worked for Orange Theory Fitness, a new fangled interval training gym where they keep you in a certain HR zone for the majority of the workout. Passionate about his work, he was eager to tell anyone who would listen about the revolutionary new system and before I knew it there were 5 people throwing their voices into the mix on the glory of Orange Theory Fitness.
“It’s Science!” interjected a women across the aisle. “They use heart rate monitors, so you get the best workout scientifically!”
“That’s right! That’s what makes it so different. You can’t beat science!”
And that’s when I put my headphones in.
What is science?
If you’ve read this blog or my work long enough, you know that one of the themes is this push/pull between the science and art of coaching. It’s a constant challenge to find that correct balance and since I live fully in both worlds, it’s one I enjoy thinking about. But conversations like the ones above speak to a central problem in understanding what actual science is.
The gentleman and lady on the plane had fallen in love with the idea of science, not actual science. They’d decided that since Orange fitness used fancy technology like Heart Rate monitors and special zones, that it was on the forefront of science and technology. And because of this connection, it couldn’t be wrong.
It’s this connection that is worrying, but not surprising. People tend to believe ideas or concepts if they have a fancy explanation or are backed by science. What science actually is, no one ever asks.
For well-read individuals it could be citing of a journal article, for others it’s the appearance of science that matters. The appearance is when technology or complicated words are thrown together to make it appear “sciency”
Even scientific research demonstrates this, as Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, explains “people will buy into bogus explanations much more readily when they are dressed up with a few technical words from the world of neuroscience.”
In other words, for most of the population, just like the folks on the plane, the appearance of “sciency” is all that matters. And once we have it, it’s a simple road down the path of believing that whatever gadget/idea/concept has to work.
Filling knowledge gaps:
But let’s step back. If you asked any coach, runner, athlete, they’d tell you that HR has it’s uses, but it’s nothing new or innovative or a magic cure all. It’s been around for decades and went through its hype cycle where it was overemphasized before settling into its rightful place. So why, do seemingly well-intentioned people think that a technology that was on its cutting edge for use in sport 20+ years ago think that the use of it proves the concept works?
The answer lies in the same reason that when I go speak at non-endurance conferences, their concept of endurance is built around Vo2max zones, cardio-vascular fitness, thresholds, and so forth. It sounds compelling to base your thinking around such cool sounding concepts.
But if we look at how most of the top coaches in the world of endurance sport look at training, it includes this knowledge as the background information, not the front and center prescriptive model. Whenever we step outside of our comfort zone, it’s tempting to fall into this trap. I know this quite well, as I have to remind myself that although I know a bit about it, I’m not a guru in the strength areas in training, or the neuroscience world in science. I have to remind myself to not get caught up into glaring at the shiny object.
Whenever we know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be an “expert” it’s tempting to grasp at these shiny objects. You want so badly to be in the club of perceived expertise that it makes sense to focus on the “sexy” concepts that have instant appeal.
The truth is that sciencyness fills in knowledge gaps. It acts as a placeholder for areas where we don’t actually know the answer. It’s easier to state that we are using VO2max intervals than 3k paced intervals.
VO2max provides a much better justification to our brains and those around us then 3k paced intervals. 3k paced intervals begs the question why are we doing 3k paced intervals, Vo2max intervals answers the question in its name; “Duh! To improve our VO2max or velocity at it, sheesh!”
The invocation of sciencyness is generally a conversation stopper. It’s an ever escalating use of complex words until you get to a point where someone, or more likely neither of you, have any clue to what you’re talking about. Real science on the other hand is about asking questions and a way of thinking to help understand and ultimately solve those questions.
That brings me back to Orange fitness. I know enough about it to know that I’m not a huge fan of the idea or concept. It’s another way to workout, not rocket science and not life-changing, just another stimulus. But what I think this conversation and the women’s proclamation of “it’s science!” reminds me is a simple message in my own coaching.
Resist the urge to sub-consciously fill gaps. It’s really tempting when I’m distracted at a meet and a coach comes up and asks me a question about why I do a certain workout, to give him a non-thinking answer.
Sprinkle in a few sciency sounding words that are close enough for a reason why you do it, and he’ll walk away completely satisfied. The problem is, that’s the default answer. The non-thinking one. What I need to realize is I’m going to be tempted to give myself that same default answer/justification when I’m sitting there on Sunday writing schedules for some athlete trying to achieve their peak performance. And that’s a problem.
Instead, I’m going to suggest doing the opposite whenever you are tempted to give a sciency explanation.
Break it down to its simplest reason.
Why are we actually doing this workout?
If the answer starts with mitochondria, capillarization, or any other sciency sounding word, stop, pause, and try again.
It’s not that these answers are wrong, but when you state them, you’re mind is creating a justification for the workout. It’s not the actual reason.
Instead, we need to take a step back and get to the actual reason why we have.
If you don’t believe me, take the answer in the opposite direction to see how absurd it sounds. “I did this tempo to activate PGC-1a, and boy did I do that!” PGC-1a is one of the pathways to mitochondria biogenesis, so it might be a perfectly legitimate statement, but you didn’t perform that workout to activate this single little pathway. The activation was one step on the pathway towards the desired functional adaptation.
That’s foundational knowledge ,that should be in the background, not the real reason. If you hear someone say that sentence or anything remotely close in anything other than an actual scientific setting, run away.