OCR athletes are, unsurprisingly, just like any other group of athletes; which is to say that they, along with gamblers and students, are an especially superstitious bunch of people. The superstitions of some professional athletes are legendary. While leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his uniform in every game. Swedish tennis legend Björn Borg would always prepare for Wimbledon by growing a beard and wearing the same Fila shirt. And baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs attributed much of his success to a daily routine which included eating chicken before each game, always taking batting practice at 5:17, and drawing the Hebrew word “Chai” in the dirt before coming up to bat.
What makes these groups prone to such superstitions? Think of situations in which an important outcome (winning a race, passing a test, picking the winning horse) is contingent on multiple variables, a great many of which are beyond an individual’s control no matter the amount of preparation. After someone has a particularly good (or bad) performance they will often try to figure out why. They may come to believe that some unique or salient variable that occurred prior to or during the event had an affect on their performance. This is how superstitions arise: it’s the classic conflation of correlation with causation.
Similar to their professional counterparts, amateur athletes looking for an extra edge in competition are also likely to fall into the trap of magical thinking. For many, these beliefs may manifest in relatively benign behaviors, such as a having a lucky charm, wearing “special” race clothing, or replicating the same warm-up religiously. However, there is another and more pernicious type of magical thinking called scientific illiteracy: an unfamiliarity with or misunderstanding of the methods and results of scientific research.
One result of scientific illiteracy is athletes using products that may have potential benefits, but that lack any substantive research to back them up. For example, shoe companies will tout their products as promoting “comfort” or “stability” but rarely outright say their product improves performance or reduces injury. Why not? Because there is no sound research to support such claims. When Vibram’s 5-Finger shoes came on the market, the company made a number of claims about strengthening and improving the range of motion in the feet and ankles as well as aligning the spine and improving posture. Without the research to back them up, such assertions cost Vibram almost four million dollars in a class action law suit brought by dissatisfied customers.
Another possible outcome of scientific illiteracy is athletes being misled by companies whose products dress themselves in scientific jargon, but whose purported mechanisms or properties defy the laws of science. These products will probably never have any sound research to support their efficacy since they are essentially “magical.” Although their supposed mechanism of action is often explained using technical-sounding terms that may sound plausible, they are fundamentally inaccurate characterizations of bodily processes. For example, this is an excerpt from a company’s website that sells “performance enhancing” bracelets:
Research has shown that each of the millions of molecules in a cell vibrate at their own vibratory character to regulate the body. When these vibrations become abnormal or out of sync, the result can be illness, fatigue or other problems. X converts natural vibrations into intrinsic energies and embeds various proprietary formulas of these intrinsic energies into the hologram on the X wristband using trade secret technology. X’s energies interact with the body’s vibrational system to move your body to its optimum vibrational level and achieve desired results. X’s wristband technology is the strongest known to man. The bracelet works non-invasively by stimulating specific acupuncture meridians.
All of that, as renowned skeptic James Randy would say, is “woo” – a tem that refers to ideas considered irrational or that appeal to mysterious forces or powers. A similar company, Power Balance, filed for bankruptcy in federal court in 2011 after they lost a 57 million dollar lawsuit brought by angry consumers. Their bracelets had skyrocketed to popularity a few years prior after being spotted on the wrists of various celebrities and professional athletes. The silicone jewelry, which cost about $30, featured a thin hologram that “enhanced the body’s natural energy” and improved balance in a manner that was supposed to mimic Eastern philosophies. Sound familiar? Sadly, similar products are still available to purchase on the internet.
Despite a few large lawsuits many similar companies have flown under the radar and avoided prosecution while continuing to sell products that claim to improve performance or promote faster recovery without any legitimate proof. They typically attach what Steven Novella of the New England Skeptics Society calls the “Quack Miranda Warning” at the bottom of their page:
These statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or illness. If you have a pre-existing condition, please check with your healthcare provider before using.
Seen that associated with anything you shelled out cash for lately?
Here is an incomplete list of some products I’ve seen promoted to the OCR community lately. In the style of “Mythbusters” I’ve divided them into two areas: “Plausible” but require more research and “Busted” because there is no science to support their claims. I’m likely to step on some toes here (hopefully none of you are currently in toe shoes), after all, who is reading this article? Athletes! And as athletes, what are we? Superstitious!
There’s nothing more enjoyable than sinking into a bathtub full of ice after a hard workout, right? Does it help? Does it hurt? Does it do anything at all? The research is very inconclusive about this timeworn athletic staple.
Ever since it made a big splash at the last Olympics this colorful tape has been showing up plastered to seemingly every body part imaginable. Unfortunately, there has not been conclusive scientific or medical evidence to confirm the effectiveness of the tape. A review of evidence from 10 research papers, published in the journal Sports Medicine in 2012, found no clinically significant evidence to support the tape’s use to manage or prevent sports injuries.
Compression clothing is based on the theory of graduated vascular compression to prevent peripheral blood pooling and increase venous return. It has been used therapeutically to alleviate circulatory problems for years; however, despite their popularity and widespread use among both amateur and professional athletes, there is simply no conclusive evidence for the efficacy of compression garments for either recovery or performance. More research is needed.
So-called “magnetic therapy” has been touted to cure everything from cancer to arthritis to ulcers. Magnets sewn into athletic clothing or embedded in bracelets claim to improve strength, speed and stamina and lead to less fatigue and injury. Those are big claims, but unfortunately the bottom line is that a) the iron in your blood is not ferromagnetic and doesn’t react to a magnetic field; b) many of these products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin’s surface, and c) research has consistently failed to show any clinical effects of magnetic therapy.
Hint, they don’t simulate “elevation.” The defining characteristic of altitude is a lower barometric pressure, which keeps decreasing the higher up you go. As a result, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air is reduced, resulting in less oxygen entering the lungs with each breath. To compensate, you breathe harder in an attempt to take in more oxygen. Elevation Masks just make it more difficult to breathe, but this does not result in any of the body’s other physiological adaptations to altitude, notably an increase in red blood cells. Want to save money and get the same effect? Breathe through a straw.
Detoxing & pH-balancing
Anything that purports to “detox” you is almost certainly “woo” since your liver already does a nifty job of this for free thanks to a few million years of evolution. And, just as anything you eat or drink won’t cleanse “toxins” from your body, your diet has no effect on the pH level of your blood. However, certain foods will change the pH of your urine which is why those little test strips that often accompany pH scams change color when you pee on them.
It’s amazing that this stuff is still around (and is sold in many major stores) since it has been soundly and repeatedly discredited since the 1900s. Homeopathic “medications” are frequently so diluted that little, if any, traces of the original ingredients remain. You are literally buying the classic placebo – a sugar pill.
Epsom salt baths
While Epsom salts in your bath will make you feel “floatier” there are no studies to suggest that an Epsom salt bath will aid in recovery. Additionally, the terms most often associated with these baths, “osmosis” and “detoxification,” are meaningless in this context. If the Epsom salts even manage to get into your body (which is questionable) it isn’t likely to be through your skin, which is a very effective barrier.
Red Flags of Pseudoscientific Advertising
Companies that sell “bad” science” often use clever marketing tactics. They are geared to attract consumers while masking the lack of sound proof of the product’s effectiveness. While any one of the tactics listed below does not necessarily mean that an idea or product is based on pseudoscience, the presence of one or more of these tactics should raise a red flag.
If an argument is based on the wisdom of the ancients (who knew much less about the world than any modern high school graduate) there is good reason to be suspicious.
“Best kept secret!” and “Revolutionary!”
If you spend much time on the internet you will find products claiming to be well-kept secrets that are now exposed. Similarly, pseudoscientific products often claim that their product is a “scientific breakthrough.” This reflects a common misunderstanding that scientific knowledge advances by single, large discoveries rather than by small, slow changes over a long period of time.
Products often claim that they can improve or cure everything under the sun. Any product that makes claims of efficacy across several domains (better performance, faster recovery, fewer injuries) should immediately raise red flags.
Testimonials and celebrity endorsements
It is unlikely that a company would publish any negative testimonials on their website. Also testimonials, even when legitimate, are often misleading due to placebo effects. Like testimonials, celebrity endorsements should not be seen as an accurate reflection of a product’s effectiveness. These endorsements are from individuals who are probably no more – and perhaps much less – scientifically knowledgeable than the average person. Additionally, the celebrities are often paid for their endorsements, making them even less credible.
Accepting anecdotes as evidence is akin to accepting the results of a single study with one subject. People are notoriously poor at separating their own biases from objective evidence. This is further compounded by the placebo effect. The fact that something “worked” for one person does not equate to evidence.
“In an age of information ignorance is a choice”
I have deliberately chosen not to include links to the products I’ve highlighted in this article. Research suggests that if you already believe in something (even if it’s worthless) you are unlikely to change your mind. However, for those of you who are undecided or curious I encourage you to investigate for yourself. You don’t have to be a scientist to learn to recognize credible sources on the web. (Hint: if a company is trying to sell you something: be skeptical.) Wikipedia is actually a pretty good starting point; you can also try an internet search for the product and adding “scam” or “skeptic” after the name to see what comes up.
The Bottom Line
A recent article in the Sweat Science (Runnersworld.com) suggests that athletes should take advantage of the placebo effect if it leads to improved performance. I disagree. While opting to wear your “lucky” shoes in a race may generally be harmless (unless you forget to pack them and are so distraught you forgo competing), Athletes who are not critical of scientific-sounding claims and are persuaded to spend money on ineffective remedies do both themselves and our society a disservice. Scientific illiteracy is bad for society as a whole. In its extreme manifestations, the inability to understand scientific research and to carefully weigh claims about evidence has led to the anti-vaccination movement and the denial of climate change. As athletes we should trust our methods, but I don’t believe that there’s any good reason why we shouldn’t base our training on principles gleaned from sound research.
Really, after all the long hours you spent in the gym and on the trails or the road, after all the blood and sweat and tears you’ve shed, isn’t it a little disingenuous to attribute breaking your PR or completing the “next level” event because of a cheap plastic band you bought online?
David Kalal has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and has worked in the field for over 20 years. He has harbored a life-long passion for science, with an emphasis on scientific skepticism. A competitive, multi-sport athlete, David has been an avid rock climber since 1999. In 2010 he completed his first Spartan Race and since has gone on to untra running and endurance events, including the Spartan UltraBeast, multiple GoRuck and S.E.R.E. Challenges, as well as Fuego Y Agua Survival Runs.
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