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Redefining Evidence-Based Training

Following an evidence-based training plan would seem, on the surface, to be an excellent strategy for getting the most from your training. But is it really?

Introduction

If you were to have a quick scan around the endurance coaching world, you’d run into a lot of coaching programmes that claim to be “evidence-based training”, “based on the science” etc.

Whenever I see this, I think back to a conversation I had on poolside with a doctor friend of mine. I told him that something had been shown to work in a study, to which he responded, “A study with how many participants?"

The Problem with Evidence-Based Training

His argument was that medical studies have thousands of people enrolled and are extremely rigorous in what they do. There is no margin for error when you’re dealing with someone’s health.

Sports studies on the other hand typically have only a handful of participants. A sports scientist colleague of mine tried to explain the complicated statistics used to come to a conclusion. I lost focus 2 minutes in & wandered mentally off into the land of bicycles I couldn’t afford.

Then I recalled how my dad loved to quote Benjamin Disraeli (via Mark Twain): “There are three types of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics.” Surely if you need to mess around with the data that much, there’s something odd going on?

What Can You Learn From Studies?

In reality, the most informative part of most studies is the outliers. What do they tell us?

Aside from anything else, study subjects who fall outside the cluster in the middle teach us an important lesson: EVERY ATHLETE IS AN EXPERIMENT OF ONE.

The truth that our sport scientist friends often miss is that the only way to know what works for you is to experiment on yourself. This is a lesson every coach should remember too.

Unfortunately I’ve fallen for the evidence-based training hype many more times than I’d care to admit and have paid the price in my racing every time.

If your coach is simply sending you the same programme that worked for some or other pro athlete, you need to stop handing over your hard-earned cash. You need to find someone who will genuinely treat you as an individual and help you to find out what works for you.

[I would suggest that the level of fees you’re being charged for the service is an indication of how much you’ll be treated as an individual, but that’s another blog post altogether.]

I’d like to redefine evidence-based training as that training which works for the individual athlete based on the evidence of their past training.

What Do You Do With This Knowledge?

Of course this requires you, the athlete, to do a few things a bit more scientifically:

• Make sure you’re in it for the long term (no quick fixes).
• Keep accurate records (Training diary, food diary etc).
• Add or remove things a piece at a time (no wholesale change for the sake of change).
• Learn to read studies or employ someone who can.
• Develop a robust BS filter and keep it turned on.

Summary

Sports science studies are usually performed with such a small sample size that the most interesting results are those of the outliers. But you don't really need studies because every athlete is an experiment of one - we are all unique.

Once you know the broad brush strokes of what works, by keeping good records of your training and learning about what works for you based on the patterns that show up, you will be way ahead of anyone who simply waits for studies to "prove" what works.

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Will Newton


In over twenty years of coaching, I have coached everyone from absolute beginners to world champions. My interest in getting the best results for people who train for health and fitness or the love of sport, rather than as professionals, drives me to find the most effective ways to get results. My mission is simple: Be in better shape at 70 than most people are at 20, and to help you do the same.

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