When Science Can’t Explain Why Your Training Method Works

As the founder of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science and evidence-based endurance sports education company, I put a lot of trust and stock in science and statistically significant data. However, I’ll be the first to admit that this doesn’t always give the whole picture when it comes to training and racing information.

There are endless areas to research in respect to endurance sports performance and as such, a lot of areas will never to touched upon and, or not researched to the extent that anything meaningful will come from the data.


What comes first, research or the application?

Many times, coaches are ahead of the research – meaning, based on their own evidence such as years of coaching, a coach may implement a particular training practice or methodology, not knowing the science behind it… they only know that it works! Only at a later date does research come into play to explain scientifically why the training practice is effective.


In comparison to other fields, there is not a lot of research pertaining to endurance sports. And oftentimes, the research that is done, often has small number of subjects. Therefore, to get as accurate information as possible, you need to group a bunch of like studies together to find commonalities and trends. This is termed a meta-analysis.


When researching a specific training methodology related to sports performance, the exact training method may not have been researched. However, the mechanisms behind the training method have been. Therefore figuring out the science behind a particular training method often requires some sleuthing on the part of an athlete or coach, and a lot of the time also requires a working knowledge of a specific area (i.e., physiology, mechanics, etc…), as the material is often of a clinical nature.


Just because something can’t be explained by science, doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. The placebo effect is one of the best examples of this. At the end of the day, if something increases one’s performance, does it really matter if the origin is of the mind or body? Likely not.


A runner always does 5 strides before a race… not 4, not 6. Each time they have done this, they’ve set a new PR. However, one time the runner did 7 strides versus 5 and had a terrible race. While a silly example, it’s used to show that while the exact number of strides done prior to a race likely doesn’t affect the race outcome, this runner (especially if they are superstitious) could deduce that doing 5 strides is the correct amount of strides to do for the best race performance.


While science and evidence-based training methods are important, in terms of the big picture, if you limit yourself only to what science has proven to work and be effective in respect to training methodologies, you’re likely missing out on effective workouts and training data.

Rick Prince is the founder of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science/evidence-based endurance sports coaching education company that certifies running and triathlon coaches.

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