Carl Foster on Sport Science: Progress, Hubris, and Humility

05 Feb 2019 Posted by

This is an extract from an editorial written by one of the great exercise physiology researchers, Carl Foster, in the most recent International Journal of Sports Performance and Physiology:

There’s a lot to that highlighted sentence alone. For one thing, it raises the main reason why I find the marginal gains PR so patronizing and offensive. It’s not as though five generations of coaches and scientists working together to acquire years of experience in a Darwinian-survival-of-the-fittest environment can suddenly be over-taken and surpassed by a few brainstorming sessions and a suggestion like “We should look at diet and interval training to win bike races, that’ll be a competitive advantage nobody can match”.

But mostly, the article, between this key point and its conclusion, highlights the a crucial challenge faced by all of us in sports science – how do we add value to the end-users, the coach and athlete?

Carl’s article uses one aspect of sports science to illustrate this – its ability to predict running success using physiological testing. He relates a story about an elite VO2max NOT being predictive of elite running performance. I previously shared a similar story with you, but in reverse – back in my early PhD days, a friend and coach took his athlete to a lab for testing and they said his VO2max needed to improve if he was going to be a successful athlete. A few months later he won silver in the 800m at the 2004 Olympic Games. That was more a case of the scientist not understanding the limitation of the tool, but the point remains – science over-reaches, a lot.

And that’s what Carl ultimately argues in this piece. This is his conclusion:

Carl writes this stuff from a position of authority, because he understands how research is meant to add value to sport, and he’s one of the best at getting it right. If you read his research collection, you’ll only see practical stuff, the kind of work that a coach would read and say “I’ll try that starting next week“. This, to me, is how you add value, as opposed to when a coach reads a paper and says “Interesting, I wonder how I can apply this for my athletes?” (something I’m sure I’ve been guilty of).

There’s his pacing strategy stuff (not theoretical, but practical, to figure out how it should be done for performance), there’s research on cardiovascular rehab, RPE and training load and so on. Too many academics start by asking what they want to know, (or what they don’t), whereas I get the impression Carl’s first question is “What would benefit the coach and athlete?”. This approach is surprisingly rare.

So the editorial makes for an important read. Only a couple of weeks ago, I shared with you a talk I did for Arsenal recently, where I tried to make similar points about the tension that exists between ‘academic sports science’ and real world sports science, where pragmatism and speed often have to over-rule the requirements for a scientific publication. Sometimes, you have to move, then measure. That talk, if you missed that post, is below:

There’s a tricky tension here, because on one hand, sports science can over-value its contributions, with a worst case being that it insults and alienates coaches. Best case is it just looks foolish and pats itself on the back when it explains what the coach and athlete have already done successfully in a tsunami of confirmation bias and self-congratulation.

But on the other hand, the coach needs to apply the principles of sports science in order to see its value. So what you end up arguing for is “less sports science”, but more “sports sense”, which is in essence what that presentation above was about. I think that if coaches embrace a way of thinking and sports scientists understand that this is their value, and not their knowledge, then the marriage would work. So that’s the challenge, whichever side of the divide you stand.


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