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Saturday, February 18, 2012

the pseudoscience dilemma

The idea of doing crazy hard stuff with a less time spent training isn't itself crazy. It is unorthodox though, and most of the 'evidence' that it can work is based on personal anecdotes or experiments, like mine.  This of course presents a problem that i call the pseudoscience dilemma.

Never heard of it?  Let me explain.

In another life (back before the turn of the century) i thought i was going to be a scientist.  I had just received my bachelors degree in physics but really wanted to study consciousness. So i found a private grad school (the california institute of human sciences) that sounded awesome.  The professors all had high degrees but were interested in exploring non-mainstream ideas - acupuncture for example - through the lens of the scientific method.  Crazy stuff has been well documented but less well studied, and i wanted to be part of the group that was trying to figure some of it out.

The problem was, as it turned out, not the professors, but everyone else.  Most of the students didn't have strong science backgrounds, but were attracted by the new-agey ideas and weren't particularly fond of thinking critically. They wanted magic.  After my motorcycle accident where i lost my spleen, one fellow student asked me if i had started regrowing it using the power of my mind yet.

Um, No, but thanks for the idea.

What attracted me to the ideas was wondering what was real and what wasn't, and how to figure that out.  What attracted most of the other students to the program was that they already thought this stuff was real.  And then there were the legions of salesmen (pick up any new age magazine and look at all the wonderful stuff you can buy that will turn-your-life-around for just three easy payments) selling modern day snake oil.

It's pretty reasonable to expect mainstream science to completely reject these 'pseudo-science' ideas, just based upon the intellectual (or ethical) nature of the majority of people who think they might in fact be true.  Throw the baby out with the bathwater.

A look at the current culture of low-volume training presents a similar picture.
 Cross-Fit advocates claim  the ability to do anything by throwing kettle balls around an empty room.  Popular fitness magazines, newspapers, and even medical websites are rife with articles that suggest six minutes workouts are as good as three hours or more.  Millions are buying video games to get healthy.  And it's all presented as if it is supposed to be so easy and require little more than making a choice, as this blogger suggests.

It's no wonder serious endurance athletes smirk when they hear these ideas.  Most of the people touting low-volume/high intensity training have no credibility or real experience with them.

The bottom line is that there is evidence that these methods work very well in certain circumstances and for certain people.  But what is rarely mentioned is that they also are, in truth, inaccessible to most.  Higher volume, lower (or moderate) intensity training provides a road towards optimum fitness that is far more trodden for a reason.  For many people (even among the very athletic), high intensity work is simply too mentally difficult to employ with the regularity required to allow for a low-volume training program to provide fitness benefits that match more traditional approaches.  In fact, the one decent article (although still misleading in title) i was able to find about high intensity training dates back to 2005.  It balanced the well documented benefits of high intensity work its all-to-often overlooked demanding nature:
The Sunday Telegraph put the new methods to the test by asking three employees of the Reebok Sports Club in Canary Wharf, London, to compare the workouts.
Angie Du Plessis, 35, who rode for 10 minutes in 60-second sprints, said: "It felt like I had just done an hour's run. It was more than I was used to but I feel more exhilarated because it was so intense.
"To be honest, it was not much fun and unless I was really pressed for time I would not change my exercise regime."
Chris Mackie, 23, tried the two minutes of cycling in 30-second super-bursts and found he was exhausted very quickly. He said: "I overworked myself well beyond what I would normally do. I can't believe it. All my energy drained so quickly.
"It was torture, really, but I was amazed at how short a time it took me to tire myself out completely. I didn't enjoy it but it felt like it worked."
Jules Wall, 27, who rode for 45 minutes at a moderate pace, insisted that she had also received a good workout. She said: "I am not sure I would want to go through the pain of 30-second sprints."
Our guinea pigs were all quite fit. 
Maybe there wouldn't be quite so much resistance to the notion of doing more with less if everyone knew how damn tough it was.  It's not pseudo-science, after all.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Andy,
    I can understand the mental resistance to upping intensity in training. I know when many other spheres of life are pressure cookers, sometimes training is the felt outlet, and the idea of voluntarily ratcheting up the pressure-ALL the time-can just be overwhelming/depressing. I've been there. When there is very little felt "fun" elsewhere, I want to protect the enjoyment of physical activity.