Success in a pill?  //  As athletes are we really so gullible. . .?

12 Jun 2008 Posted by

Just a short post today prior to our Comrades Marathon previews and coverage. One of our readers alerted us to a short blog post on the Runner’s World website. It was so ludicrous that it was begging for us to take a look at this and clarify the points.

Marketing works

In a recent New York Times article by Gina Kolata, British physiologist Michael Rennie was quoted as saying that “It does seem to me that as a group, athletes are particularly gullible.” Unfortunately Dr. Rennie has pretty much nailed it with this statement, as products making outrageous claims of performance enhancement and success continue to do well, and new products are being introduced all the time. The fact that there is such a market for these things must indicate that people are buying them.

We have often spoken about the outrageous claims these manufacturers make, and how more often than not these claims have no scientific backing. We have also spoken about how science can be warped and bought to make these claims. In the end, though, when faced with strong marketing techniques that appeal to us on a number of different levels, humans as a bunch cave to these tactics and open our wallets, even when deep down we probably know that the claims are bogus. We will leave it to the psychologists to explain why we do this, but it is a known phenomena in marketing research.

Success in a pill

So when Derek sent us this link, we jumped at the opportunity to dissect this one. “Sports Legs” is a product claiming to. . .claiming to. . .well, actually they themselves do not make claims outright on their website, but instead have embedded the claims into athlete testimonials and product reviews in print media—a great marketing move on their part as it will appear that people other than the (biased) manufacturer is making the claims. There are too many to list here, but the one claim is that it “pre-loads your bloodstream with lactate and tricks your mucles into thinking they don’t need to make more–a sneaky way to raise your lactate threshold and boost performance.” The claims go on and on and all of them are equally outlandish.

The problem, as we have so many times stated here and hope our readers have learned by now, is that lactate does not cause fatigue. And no, the burn in your legs is not the result of the dreaded “lactic acid” as products like these claim.

The Sports Legs Muscle Trick

Even more fearsome than the Jedi Mind Trick, Sports Legs tricks the muscles into producing less lactate. Problem is that lactate is a product of carbohydrate metabolism, and as our exercise intensity increases we tend to rely more on carbohydrate and less on fat. In fact for most of us this shift from fat to carbohydrate occurs at relatively low intensities, and when when exercising at what many of us would call “tempo” pace, we are in all likelihood using exclusively carbohydrate as a fuel. So if the product actually does what it claims, then it is modulating your exercise metabolism so that you burn more fat at very high intensities. . .and if that is the case, then we must do a study and publish it in Nature as that would be a remarkable physiological feat!

It should be no surprise that as we exercise harder and harder the lactate concentration in our blood rises, because we are utilizing carbohydrates at higher and higher rates. Again, however, the lacate is not a cause of fatigue, and so their claim is senseless, as they say that the product actually increases the lactate concentration in the blood. Well, if lactate is the cause of fatigue as they claim, then how does that work?

Don’t be a gullible athlete

Visit their website if you must read the claims for yourself, but we are surprised that they do not claim their product will also help men with erectile dysfunction, as the pills seem to be a cure for so many other things, including low bone density in cyclists. The main problem with the testimonials is that the athletes taking the product ingest it with massive expectations that it will produce all the effects it claims to. Therefore it is no surprise to us that users report experiencing these effects. . .this is otherwise known as the placebo effect.

To really test products like these, we must perform a double-blind and placebo controlled study. In doing so we hope to diminish or eliminate any bias from the participants or the researchers. Then let’s evaluate the effects of the product, because then we have controlled for any placebo effect, and what we might find is that taking the placebo pills are no better than taking the actual product.

This is a bogus product, like so many that have come before it and so many that will come after it. It is probably not harming anyone who ingests it, although no long term studies have investigated this. However we find it highly improbable that it actually does any of the things it claims to do. Yet if an athlete truly believes that taking these pills will enhance their performance, then they probably will, and again this is the placebo effect, but an effect nonetheless.

Stay tuned for our Comrades Marathon coverage in the meantime. The race is this Sunday and will be over by the time the east coast of America wakes up, but we will have all the results and analysis right here!

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