I spend A LOT of time on running forums… far more than I would like to admit. Different forums have different atmospheres. Some focus on sharing experiences. A few talk about gear. Others discuss the scientific side of running. A few others are nothing more than a bunch of antagonists trying to one-up each other.
All share one thing in common- lots of advice is tossed out.
This sharing of advice results in a strange double-edged sword of effects. On one hand, it allows runners to share knowledge from an incredible array of sources. Let’s say a runner is looking for the ideal training plan. Back in the day, they could ask the other runners in their social circle. They could read a book. Or they could do whatever Runners World deemed as the flavor of the day. Today, a runner can tap the collective knowledge of literally thousands (or more) of other runners from a huge variety of skill levels. There’s virtually no limit to the knowledge that can be gained. If a runner experiments with this knowledge, it should be pretty easy to figure out what works best.
On the other hand, this panacea of knowledge often results in a narrowing of perspective. Some ideas may become popular with a particular group. Since most of the group buys into the idea, they start developing groupthink-like behaviors. They accept evidence that supports their idea and ignore the contradictory evidence. Since the idea is held by a group, there’s an inflated sense of “this is the right answer.” In other words, a group that agrees on an idea dramatically increases the confidence in the idea. This limitation is even more pronounced if there’s some scientific research that supports the group’s ideas. It’s a cognitive bias we all experience.
Anyway, this groupthink attitude has the potential to hurt us because it artificially narrows our perception of the possible solutions to problems. We’re not as open to all possibilities as we should be. We automatically accept some ideas and reject others on the basis of peer influence, not personal experience. If the goal is to maximize our experiences and reach our goals, no matter what those may be, we have to figure out what works best for us. The only way to accomplish this is to self-experiment with a wide variety of ideas. That’s not going to happen if we limit our knowledge base.
The key is to maintain an open mind to anything and everything. Don’t reject an idea until you’ve tested it repeatedly. Even then, don’t rule out the possibility that it may work better at some point down the road.
So how do you go about self-experimentation?
It’s easy. Start with a baseline, or where you’re at right now. That can be measured in a variety of ways depending on what new variable you’re testing. Heart rate, pace, endurance, or subjective feeling could all be used, as could anything that can be reasonably measured. Do a few runs to establish that baseline. Then change one variable. Be careful not to alter more than one as it will be impossible to determine which of the variables caused any observable changes.
Let’s try an example: eating tacos as a race food. We want to be thorough, so we’ll measure time, heart rate, and subjective feeling for a few long runs. Then we’ll do a run or two while eating tacos. We’ll record the same measures on that run.
If the results are positive, continue doing it. If the results are negative, stop. If there’s no change, table the idea until a later time, perhaps a few months down the road.
Let’s say our taco experiment resulted in a 30 second per mile faster pace at the same average heart rate, and we felt better than the pre-taco runs. We could consider the experiment a success and start using tacos regularly.
If you want to increase the confidence in your results, change the variable back to whatever you did before. If your measurements return to the baseline, you can make a good assumption the changed variable caused the effect.
We’ll do an occasional taco-free run and measure the results. We would expect our times to slow down at the same heart rate and not feel quite as good. If this occurs in the taco-free runs, our confidence in the taco fuel will increase.
That’s all there is to it. Do this with new ideas you encounter and you’ll be on the road to an improved running experience! Remember, don’t accept or reject an idea just because others do, even if their rationale seems logical. Use all information as fuel for self-experimentation.