The confusing state of exercise physiology research

A recent study in the BMJ (popular news coverage here) suggests that much of the research on the purported benefits of sports drinks is of poor quality, and very little of it is independently performed. This is obviously not a surprise given the vast amount of money involved in the sports beverage industry and their vested interest in pushing their product. It should also be obvious that, while sports drinks are widely marketed, only a very small percentage of the population–those who get regular vigorous exercise–will draw benefit from them, and that definitely does not include the average Joe Sixpack who buys a case of Gatorade at the local Safeway. But what is more concerning is that good sound scientific studies on any number of exercise regimens and associated products is sorely lacking. Should you run on your forefeet or your heels? Do compression socks enhance performance, recovery, both, or neither? Does protein supplementation help build muscle? For these and many other topics, the evidence is either lacking or contradictory, as a quick perusal of PubMed shows. As an amateur triathlete looking to improve his performance, it is frustrating to have no way of knowing what works and what doesn’t, other than testimonials of others, which any scientist worth his or her salt can tell you barely constitutes evidence at all. And the fact that training trends come and go only reinforces the concern that much of what constitutes popular wisdom in exercise physiology is mere folklore. Heck, there are probably even homeopathic training supplements out there, and athletes who will swear by them. I don’t know whether the problem comes from not enough good scientists in the field, from the nature of the research questions being asked, or from the challenges inherent in the great diversity of physiological responses from person to person. Frustrating indeed.

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