The vast majority of animals simply act and move reflexively as they are driven by impulses and instincts. They have no names and they live in a world without time or a fear of the future. Simply put, they have no desire to understand the inner workings of the world around them, nor to play God and shape the fundamentals of nature in ways beyond their ancestors comprehension. If life is a complex game played on the chessboard of physics and chemistry, these animals are the pawns, and nature is the chest master driving their every move.
Humans differ from these other animals - we want to become the chess master, and better understand this game of chess on a level that allows us to predict our opponents moves, and control the outcome of the game. We may never fully actualize this desire, but time has proven that we can surpass the lowly status of a pawn, whose only choice is to move forward, and become the queen with a near infinite ability to span the board and largely shape what occurs over the course of the game. Some would even argue that we’ve become a player and have executive control over all of the pieces, though the grand master is always two steps ahead.
So, what makes humans special, and why have we traversed the ranks from a pawn to a player of the game when other animals have failed to do so ? I’d argue that the credit is due to our ability to think scientifically. Which raises the question….. What is Science ?
On the simplest level science is just one of many branches of human pursuit, not unlike the arts or athletics, but is differs from all other human endeavors in it’s power to help us understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world.
However, despite its wonder, the majority of the people either think science is boring, or incomprehensible without an advanced degree in the field, or their preconceived notions of what science is, or how it works, are just flat out wrong. My aim for this article isn’t to sell you on science - there are thousands of compelling science advocates out there like Neil Degrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan who can do that job better than I could dream of - my goal is to help you understand what science is, what science isn’t, and how we can use science to further our understanding of the human body as well as our ability to self actualize, whether that means improving performance, health, or your mind.
If you’re a standard American your biggest exposure to science comes through the form of soundbites, click bait, and news headlines, which may or may not reflect the true nature of the research being presented. Put simply, science discovers objective truths. These truths aren’t established by any seated authority, or any single research paper as people commonly believe. The press, in an effort to break a story, or an ‘authority’ in the fitness realm trying to justify their methods, may mislead the public’s awareness of how science works by headlining a newly published paper as ‘the truth’, when in fact the authors of the paper claim no such thing. Until an objective truth is established, research can land all over the place until experiments converge in one direction or another.
People also tend to think of science as a concrete, and rigorous, process but that couldn’t be further from the truth. A great scientist, much like an artist, needs to be able to dream up ideas, see things as no one has seen them before, or put together ideas in a way no one has considered. Science is not just rigorous, it’s also creative.
Now that we’ve discussed what science is, it’s important to distinguish what science isn’t. Over the past few years there has been a surge in ‘evidence based fitness’ methods which purport to be based around cutting edge science. This surge has given rise to things like IIFYM, various popular training and periodization schemes, and even arm chair ‘science based’ nutrition coaches. While there are some research pieces to support what they are doing, science is more of a process of inquiry. It’s not about what we know, but more about about what we don’t know. For example, we know caloric restriction promotes fat loss on average. However, what if an athlete restricts calories below a threshold where they can perform, someone has poor nutrient absorption, there is a disruption in the gut microbiome, etc. Mind you, I don’t have any qualms with many of these methods, and a lot of them yield fantastic results, but many are not in fact scientifically validated as the authorities in those fields would lead you to believe when they hashtag #Science.
Reading the abstract of a few research papers on pubmed, cherry picking excerpts from papers to justify methods, using correlation to explain causation, or using post hoc analysis of training results and purporting the finding as fact are not science. It is in the pursuit of nuance that science offers us it’s magic and ability to continually illuminate our existence.
So far as the scientific process goes, science entails a systematic approach that uses observable, testable, repeatable, and falsifiable experimentation. Without this it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking something is true that isn’t, something that is not true is, or that we understand how something works when it occurs via an interaction of variables we can’t comprehend or through mechanisms we don’t understand, which was the topic of my post recent article titled, Science Progresses One Funeral At a Time. In fact, this is the purpose of the scientific method which can easily be summed up with the following picture:
Physiology is a hard and fast science with concrete rules and boundaries. It represents life, but in the same way that a map represents a landscape. Life is complex, and complexity is by definition unscriptable and unmappable. Maps can never perfectly reflect reality - in fact, they are just metaphors. They are illustrations or plotted points on a flat surface meant to represent things that aren’t flat at all. They may be elegant, but they can’t hold things like culture, ideas, belief systems, and cuisine associated with the region. In this vein of thought the concrete boundaries in fields like exercise physiology are faint outlines of statistical averages and can never fully reflect the processes going on in an individual perfectly. How can we move forward with that ?
I view the training process like an applied, dynamic, science which means textbooks from singular fields, like exercise physiology, are merely reductionist and can’t be taken as fact and applied across the board. External factors play a much bigger role than any controlled study can ever account for, which is why training cannot only be scientific. There’s an artistic and intuitive component as well. As a coach you have to trust in your own capacity to make common sense decisions, which are backed by academic data, then fill in gaps with something that makes the most logistical sense for the client rather than adhering to single variable studies to dictate every decision we make.
So, that being said, how is science useful in sport and athletic development ? Science, statistics, and an understanding of the current body of research allow us to improve our overarching training paradigm, and the methods we use over time, as well as throw out contemporary ideas that no longer serve us. This allows us to be creative with our process, and use athletes as n=1 case studies, in order to figure out what works best for the individual over time as patterns emerge. As many may know, particularly those that have been through the hellish onsite assessments i’ve concocted, technologies like moxy monitors have played a large part in what we’re exploring at TTT. The moxy monitors allow me to assess an athlete's internal physiology, and identify their limiter, so we can be more surgical in training and create a plan to attack their underlying limiters. This way no time, or energy, is wasted on training that won’t directly improve their performance. In addition to the moxy monitors I utilize equipment like the spirotiger for respiratory system development, omegawave and other HRV systems to monitor the state of the nervous and metabolic systems, polygraph for live time blood pressure, respiration rate, galvanic skin response, and ANS state, as well as others with the aim of creating training protocols that elicit the greatest adaptive response with minimal stress to the athlete.
My goal, and one that is embodied in the culture at TTT, is to ensure we are sharing the important lessons we learn through these and other inquiries, advancing the quality of thinking in the fitness industry, and not suffering from groupthink or blindly following the masses. Science is a big part of that process, and my hope is to help spread scientific literacy - not with the goal of making everyone else a scientist, but to give people another lens through which they can view the world and understand it. That understanding is empowering, and with that empowerment people will be less prone to falling for pseudoscience, they can make their own informed decisions, and as a result they will be happier, healthier, and perform better long term.