The fundamental motivation driving most scientific research is simple: to discover the truth. To accomplish this goal, researchers attempt to find reliable patterns that explain why something is the way it is. But as hard as we might try, it is exceedingly difficult to boil down reality to simple rules and laws. More often, we might discover an effect that holds some of the time, under some conditions, depending on a multitude of frequently unpredictable or unidentifiable factors. In our quest for answers we therefore aim to control for the irrelevant variability across our sample in order to reveal meaningful differences related to our variable of interest. Although this variability can be the frustrating source of a finding that hovers just above the (arbitrarily) coveted .05 alpha, it can also be magnificently informative.
Recently, there have been growing efforts to integrate scientific understanding of human physiology, biomechanics and metabolism into the realm of athletic performance. While I entirely support and encourage every runner to self-educate from well-conducted scientific research, it can be dangerous to accept every claim without a certain level of skepticism. Peruse the countless running blogs, forums, magazines and books and you will find self-proclaimed experts confidently backing their particular running shoe, diet, training plan, pre-race routine, blah, blah, blah as the healthiest or most effective. Why, then, is much of the running community stuck battling frequent injury, fatigue and discouragement? As much as we try to generalize into tight, clean categories, the fact remains that immense variation exists between runners in terms of ideal nutrition, biomechanics and training. When was the last time you heard a claim along the lines of “The majority of people report increased (insert effect Y here) from (insert cause X here)”? Many will readily infer a universal, causal relationship between X and Y while overlooking that in a subset of individuals X did not increase Y. Again, variability can be informative. Assuming that such claims are based on properly designed and conducted studies (watch out – this is not always a valid assumption!) a likely explanation for such differences is that individuals have distinct responses to X. We like to assume that if it works for you it will certainly work for me, while forgetting the not-so-insignificant detail that we are different people. My best advice to become a stronger, happier runner is to value your own experience above that of others. In fact, you might want to stop reading this blog right now. The most informed expert about what will benefit you … is you.
Over the recent past I have approached my lifestyle as an experiment with n=1 and made the fascinating discovery that what works for my optimal health and happiness is often drastically different from what the media, coaches and even doctors traditionally advise. This exploratory period was sparked largely by a 6-month journey through Asia and Africa during which I ate, slept and exercised erratically. Upon returning to the U.S. I appeared thin, weak and scraggly. Paradoxically, I clocked each of my 7 post-travel marathons faster than my 3 pre-travel marathons, with an average 20 minute post-travel improvement (p < .0001; yes I am just that nerdy that I ran the stats). How had months of exposure to intense physical stressors and a clean break from running, all while abandoning conventional health advice left me with greater strength and endurance than ever before? It turns out I may not in fact be a freak of nature; rather, a wealth of research has demonstrated that mild to moderate stressors such as physical activity, caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, social or environmental stress are associated with diverse benefits including improved cardiovascular health and cognitive function, increased hippocampal neurogenesis and longevity (Lyons et al., 2010, Mattson & Wan 2005, Minois 2000, Parihar et al., 2011) .
While I by no means advocate abusing or shocking your system into super-human running condition, there seems to be a delicate balance between positive and negative stressors that varies from person to person. Using a mindful approach of starting from the conventional center and slowly testing my limits, I am continuously discovering my individual zone of comfort, health and strength. In future posts I hope to share observations from my personal experiments with injury prevention and treatment, nutrition, footwear (and lack of) and training tactics. To any runner looking to these posts or any other resources for advice, I strongly suggest you take them with a grain of salt and then conduct your own experiment of one.