Toolbox: Getting To The Good Stuff
We cyclists and cycling fans live in a torrent of information. We can read websites and magazines, watch television and internet coverage, and listen to podcasts seemingly all day, on all manner of cycling related topics. The challenge, as with the rest of life, is to parse out the high quality, good information from the bad.
By Matt McNamara
At the race on Sunday a few of us were talking about the first cyclocross World Cup in Plzen, Cezchoslovakia. One of the guys had watched it earlier in the day online and was recounting the last lap heroics of Sven Nys. Cool stuff…but it got us on a small tangent about how “back in the day” information was much harder to come by. You’d be lucky to get a daily results list from the Tour de France in the local paper, let alone the comprehensive and varied reporting, analysis and commentary that is commonplace today.
Similarly, access to good training information was often hard to come by. I remember my enthusiasm and excitement when I got my own copy of U.S. National Coach Edward Borysewicz (Eddie B’s) “Bicycle Road Racing: The Complete Program for Training and Racing” in the late 80’s. At the time it was THE definitive text on how to be a bike racer, yet looking at it now (yep, I still have my copy) the training and physiology sections seem outdated and often anecdotal. There isn’t a single citation of peer reviewed research to be found and no bibliography!
That said there is still a TON of relevant information on the nuances of bike racing – things most of us take for granted and things we often forget to teach or learn. It is in the small spaces between the hard science that Eddie B’s book flourishes. He brought a level of credibility that was undeniable to the work. Included the meaningful elements beyond the training. When was the last time you had someone work with you on your tumbling ability to decrease injury risk when crashing?
Of course, now things are vastly different. A simple google search of “cycling training” gave me about 58 MILLION results! Often these results are ranked by keywords, but one can also pay to bump their link search results. Since most of us are going to use a search result from the first or second page, it’s important to consider the quality of the information being offered:
Know Thy Source
We’ve all heard the aphorism “Know Thyself.” I would challenge all of you to ‘Know Thy Source.” Look at every piece of information with a skeptic’s eye. It is a central tenant of the scientific mindset that we so fully embrace here at Pez! Read lots, but do so asking several important questions of your reading:
First, is the writer credible? Unfortunately, these days it is easy to look at a by-line, see a bunch of letters and awards after a name and ascribe competence to that author. However, like lawyers and doctors there are good and bad writers, experts and “think they know’s” in every area of cycling. I read a lot of blogs and am constantly surprised by what passes for ‘expertise’ amongst some segments of the cycling community. Recall that the attainment of expertise was quantified, by Malcom Gladwell and others, as having 10,000 hours of focused specific training and experience, the equivalent of 5 years of full time work. So is your expert really an expert?
Second, are they citing peer reviewed research? Perhaps more importantly, and magnitudes more demanding – are they citing relevant research correctly? This is an important distinction, one that requires more from you as the reader, we’ll look into that a bit more on that in a minute. Suffice it to say that it is the details, and correct interpretation of them, that matters, and you as the reader have to engage articles critically.
It is far too easy to pick and choose ‘facts’ or to interpret results to suit an individual argument. The problem is that the “ANSWER” offered may not have been part of the question asked. A similar problem is the hubris of certainty. That one simply “KNOWS” the correct answer. I tend to shy away from articles espousing the “perfect plan” or “right way” to train – such dogma is often built on a foundation of hubris rather than sound science.
Do Your Own Research
If you are a regular reader of the Toolbox, chances are you have a deeper than average interest in the science of performance, so why not engage in your own research? Keeping in mind the previous section, try to solve a personal mystery in cycling this week. The first step is to identify a question – that should be easy enough. Then you need to gather resoures to try and answer the question. This is where I’ll let you in on the coach’s and physiologist’s secret – Pub Med! Though it may appear intimidating on first glance, it is actually a tremendous resource. Simply put in what you are looking for and see what comes back.
Of course this is where we get to that “more demanding of you the reader” part I mentioned earlier. The true benefit of PubMed is the ability to search for specific research in your area of interest, but then you have to read the research! You will have access to the abstract – the summary of the research – but try to read the whole article. Abstracts are a sort of clif-note of the research in question, but often the meaningful approach, or the novel concept being explored is glossed over in the search for brevity.
It may take you a few tries to begin to understand the construction of a scientific paper, but by and large they follow a pretty standard format: A review of the problem under scrutiny, a hypothesis of what they THINK will happen, a discussion of the research undertaken, and a summary of the findings.
Within each section are little clues that will help you identify the truths and confounds on offer. Was their study design appropriate? Were their methods accurate? What confounds can you find? It’s a bit like a mystery novel in that YOU have to determine if the question asked, and they manner in which they tried to answer it, was appropriate and without bias.
For the sheer intimidation of it, I might skip really specific research at first and focus more on general questions or trends. The so called “review of literature” is a great place to start. For these the study’s authors will take an important question – What is the relationship between intensity and duration for elite level athletes – look at a large swath of published research on that topic, analyze it, and try to draw some meaningful conclusions. They are great fun to read because they force you to see the question from a variety of perspectives.
Another resource that I would highly recommend is an article by Sam Callan – “How To Read A Scientific Paper.” Drop me a note – [email protected] – and I’ll forward you the PDF. It may help those first few studies go down a little easier…
And of course, our Toolbox Editor, Dr. Stephen Cheung, specializes in articles condensing and applying the latest scientific research, so check through his archive of Pez articles too!
About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. In addition to coaching athletes from across the spectrum, he is also the director of the Sterling Cross p/b Sendmail, Inc. team based in Northern California. Matt is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. Learn more by visiting them online at www.sterlingwins.com.