Monday, January 31, 2011
In general one of my new favorite bands, the Yoshida Brother's song "Rising" is one of my favorite running songs in particular. It has an excellent rhythm and the rising and falling nature of the song make it well suited for trail running in the hills ^_^
Sunday, January 30, 2011
I ended up running an additional mile in 5 minutes and 27 seconds... pretending I was a giant robot the entire time o_O!
Saturday, January 29, 2011
Friday, January 28, 2011
Thursday, January 27, 2011
All the ISU track alumni out there will remember running the ridge behind Davis field... one summer when I ran the ridge a lot, this was my theme song. (I went with some dude's Samurai X version of the video because otherwise it was just the album cover for 4 minutes!)
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
'Western World's driving beat and anti-consumerist message helps inspire me (...or possibly anger me) through the hardest parts of hill repeats!
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Monday, January 24, 2011
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Athletes have always been superstitious people. I think this stems in large part from how invested they are in winning and the competitive nature of their lives. Athletes will leap at opportunities to improve their performance, but this desire can manifest itself in positive ways (finding the best coaches, grinding out long training sessions, making personal sacrifices to commit to their sports) and in negative ways (anabolic steroids, blood doping, erythropoietin). A slightly more innocuous manifestation is superstitions.
In a modern Pascal’s wager, athletes will often engage in “unfounded” traditions, repetitions, and praxis because it seemed to work before. Perhaps no sport is more famous for its superstitions than baseball: rally-caps, playoff beards, Jobu’s rum, none of these things should be trifled with. Recently, however, enterprising business people have capitalized on athletes’ willingness to take any advantage, and have begun marketing unproven and expensive contraptions that make wild claims about their ability to improve performance. (In this post, I am going to take direct aim at Power Balance Performance Technology, but Phiton Bracelets and Q-Ray Bracelets are also on my list!).
If you're not familiar with Power Balance, check it out here. Let me present from text from the Power Balance Performance Technology Web Site:
“Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to respond to the natural energy field of the body. The Mylar material at the core of Power Balance has been treated with energy waves at specific frequencies. The resulting Mylar is believed to resonate and work with your body’s natural energy flow to help enable you to perform at the best of your ability.”
Power Balance claims that a “Mylar hologram” contained within the bracelet can improve your balance, strength, and flexibility. Mylar (or Biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate) is a reflective polyester film used in industry for chemical stability, tensile strength, and insulating properties. How does a hologram imprinted on Mylar film “optimize the body’s natural energy flow?” Better still, what is the natural energy field of the body? Just questions. Moving on…
“Power Balance will not make you stronger than you are, but is designed to help make you as strong as you should be by interacting with your body’s natural energy flow.”
Interesting. So, power balance won’t make me stonger? But will make me as strong as I should be… what if I’m not already as strong as I should be? I feel like squirrels are chasing each other around in my brain…
“Millions of people around the globe are wearing Power Balance products and are thrilled with the results. Dozens of high profile professional athletes swear by the results they've experienced from wearing our products." CNBC recently named Power Balance as the "Sports Product of the Year for 2010." Our bracelet was also one of Amazon's 'Top 5 Best Sellers' during the recent holiday shopping season.”
Whoah, this has suddenly moved from charming to malevolent. Power Balance products include a ten-pack of stick-on embedded holograms ($59.95), a pendant ($39.95), a wristband ($29.95), and an eight-pack of pocket cards ($59.95). Let’s assume that these millions of people around the world all went with the cheapest option – the $30 wrist band – this means that Power Balance has taken at least $60 million ($30 x 2 million people) from people paying for an untested product!
Some might squeal, “But these products are tested! I’ve seen the tests on Youtube.” These tests consist of a tester and a testee going through a series of exercises purportedly testing balance, strength, and flexibility while the testee is either wearing or not wearing a Power Balance card/bracelet. In all of these tests, the amount of force applied is subjective, the location of the force is not controlled, the Power Balance “test” always comes second, both parties know when the card/bracelet is in use, and they know what is expected to happen. This is a beautiful recipe for self-deception, which is to say, placebo. Although I was unable to find any work published in academic journals, the evidence is pretty solid that these bracelets are placebos (Australian Skeptics).
Placebos in athletic performance are a very real empirical phenomenon (for a review see Beedie & Foad, 2009). One study (Maganaris et al., 2000) investigated the effects of placebos on the performance of 11 nationally ranked power-lifters. The authors has two major hypotheses that they were interested in testing: (a) that the placebo would have positive effect on maximum strength testing and (b) once the deception was revealed, performance would return to baseline (suggesting the placebo increased strength through purely cognitive mechanisms such as expectations and conceptions of ability). Baseline data was collected in the bench press, dead lift, and squat. One week later, subjects were given what they were told was a fast-acting anabolic steroid, which in reality was an inert substance, and retested. Performance in the 3 lifts improved significantly (+3.5, +4.2, and +5.2%, respectively). In the following week, half of the subjects had the deception revealed and the other half continued to belief they were taking a steroid. The group who were made aware of the deception had a marked decrease in their improvement (-1.7, -.4, and +4%, respectively), whereas the group who believed they were still taking steroid continued to improve (+3.2, 4.4, and +4.2%, respectively).
But power based sports are not unique in their susceptibility to placebos; we have placebos for endurance athletes as well. McClung & Collins (2007) studied the physiological and psychological effects of sodium bicarbonate supplementation in 16 track athletes. These runners completed 5 x 1,000m time trials under various conditions. For every subject, there was one habituation trial and four counterbalanced experimental trials: (i) informed drug/received drug, (ii) informed drug/received placebo, (iii) informed placebo/received drug, (iv) informed placebo/received placebo. McClung and Collins collected measures of time, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE), and blood lactate. The results showed that subjects who believed they consumed sodium bicarbonate (regardless of whether or not they did) ran significantly faster, however there was no change in the underlying physiology (i.e., blood lactate levels) or in RPE. This suggests that the positive effects of ingesting sodium bicarbonate were due to expectancy alone!!!
So why do I have such a big problem with this? Placebos do work, just not for the reasons that people believe and therefore I would treat it as harmless... until it becomes a scam. If you think that eating chocolate chip cookies before a game makes you better (as I have read that Brian Urlacher does), I think that is great. If you think that you shouldn't have sex for three weeks before a fight (sage, but strange wisdom I have heard from Ultimate Fighters), go for it. But if you start to charge people gratuitous sums of money for something that has no basis in reality, then we have a serious problem, and I think the best way to fight this is through your power as a consumer. Basically I think the title of this post says it all, "stop spending money on shit you don't need!" I'll admit that I am as guilty of this as the next person... not in terms of placebos, but technology. Many an REI sales rep has boosted their commission by telling me that something is whatever proof. Do I really need a watch that is water resistant to a depth of 100m while simultaneously being dust proof?
Hell yes! I don't want to be caught off guard when it starts flooding during my epic trail run through Death Valley... when I swim to safety I'll impress everybody with how hardcore I am when my watch still works!
Friday, January 7, 2011
In a previous post, I explored some the evolutionary aspects of human digestive physiology and the implications these adaptations have for “optimal” nutrition. I concluded with some brief comments about highly processed foods available to modern humans and suggested a return more wild foods would be a good thing for most people looking to eat healthier. I got a lot of comments back about food processing and a lot of questions about why it changes the nutritional value of our food. What I found was that most people, myself included, were inclined to think about their calories in line with the first law of thermodynamics:
Change in energy stores = Energy intake – Energy Expenditure
This model is correct, but we were simplifying the idea of “energy expenditure.” Energy is not only expended in the process of running, jumping and climbing trees. The act of digestion itself is very energy intensive! Processing food essentially externalizes digestion, taking some of the energy expenditure away from our own body, because the work is already being done for us by machines, fire, etc.
If we consider digestion as a two-way street (i.e., calories are being burnt to bring calories in) we can understand nutrition in a much more complicated, but much more accurate sense. This has some serious implications. First, to eat healthy, our focus has to shift from what we "eat" to what we "digest". Second, (and apologies to any dietitians out there) we realize that nutritional science is based on a lot of approximations, abstractions, and guessing. (Which is not to say that nutritional science is not very, very useful... but its weaknesses need to be recognized.)
Soft food makes soft rats
An interesting demonstration of this principle is a study that examined weight gain in laboratory rats (Oka et al., 2003). After being weaned as pups for 4 weeks, these rats were divided into 2 groups. One group of rats received regular, hard food pellets (… like people eating Grape Nuts…) and the second group was given the exact same food pellets, only these food pellets were made softer by being air puffed. These softer, air-puffed pellets were nutritionally identical to the harder pellets; the only difference was in the physical density of the pellet. Both groups of rats were matched on the number of calories consumed and the amount calories expended in terms of activity (wheel-running, etc.). So, these rats were getting the exact same calorie intake and, in theory, had the same calorie expenditure. However, after 26 weeks, the soft-pellet rats weighed 6% more and had 30% more abdominal fat than the hard-pellet rats!
What’s going on here? Assessing the post-meal thermogenesis in the rats showed the soft-pellet rats had a lower average body temperature after feeding than the hard food rats. This suggests that digesting the soft food pellets was less metabolically intensive than the hard food pellets and, indeed, this difference in body temperature explained the weight gain and fat gain the soft-food rats experienced. Thus, the hard-pellets make the stomach work harder, churning and secreting more acid in order to break down the hard food, whereas air-puffing the soft-pellets has already done some of this work for the digestive system.
Processing, whether it is cooking, mashing, drying, or even tenderizing facilitates digestion. So with the amount of processing most food undergoes today, it is easy to see how eating super soft angel hair pasta (which is made from the finest ground white flour and then steamed into pasty deliciousness) leads to more calories actually being consumed than eating the same number of calories of dense whole-wheat oat & nut bread (...which I find even more delicious!).
Studies of raw foodists (who process foods minimally to not at all) also confirm the experimental work done with animals. When you compare meat eaters to vegetarians, there are seldom substantial differences in body-weight or body fat percentage, but some differences with regard to cardiovascular health (Rouse et al, 1983). When you compare raw foodist to people who cook their food, however, there are substantial differences; raw foodists weigh significantly less than people who cook their food (Donaldson, 2001; Fontana et al, 2005; Koebnick et al., 1999).
This is not a really a good thing though, because raw foodist are also plagued by a number of health problems, such as low bone mass. Furthermore, in the study by Koebnick et al (1999), nearly half of the women who were raw foodists were also amenorrheaic. This alarming result suggests that these women were not getting the calories they needed to maintain basic physiological functions, because that energy was being spent trying to digest all of their raw food! A lot of people on raw food diets say that they feel invigorated and cleansed by their food choices because people evolved to eat raw food. It may be true that they feel that way, but it is completely untrue that people evolved to eat raw food. Nutritional anthropologists will tell you that cooking technology has been an important part of human evolution for a long time and our digestive physiology is uniquely adapted to eating cooked food. The trick then, it seems, is a balance of how much processing we should allow in our food.
The challenge for nutritional science
We are all familiar with the nutritional information we find on the back of our foods. The numbers look very scientific and official, and indeed they are, but until I started researching this topic several months ago I had a very poor understanding of where these numbers came from. The food labeling system in most countries (certainly in Europe and North America) is based on the Atwater System. Wilbur Atwater was a chemist in the middle of 19th century and the goal of his research was to make sure that people (especially in poor communities) were getting an adequate amount of energy from their foods to maintain their health. Through rigorous experimentation with a number of different methods, Atwater was able to determine the approximate caloric values of proteins, lipids (fats), and carbohydrates in our foods. The simplified form of the results is that proteins and carbohydrates contain about 4 Calories per gram and lipids contain about 9 Calories per gram. (Alcohol was later factored in with these macronutrients and was found to have about 7 Calories per gram.)
These values are known as Atwater’s general factors and form the basis for a lot of dietary practices and nutritional recommendations that experts make today. Although these general factors are correct as rough approximations, they ignore a lot of the complexity and variation that takes place in human digestion. For instance, as a chemist, Atwater burned foods in a bomb calorimeter so the energetic cost of digestion is ignored in the calculation of his figures. The human body is not a bomb calorimeter (…luckily…) and nutrients have different costs to their digestion. Proteins require more energy to digest than carbohydrates, and fats are the least costly to digest while also being the most energy dense!
Even adding this level of complexity ignores the form the food comes in. The cost of digesting proteins versus carbohydrates versus lipids are calculated based on breaking these molecules down in solution, which is not how food enters our stomach. Rather than simply consuming a slurry of nutrients, we eat a complex panoply of shapes, textures, and densities in our foods. Thus, the energetic cost of food is highly contextual. The cost of digestion is higher for tougher, harder foods, foods with larger rather than smaller particles, and food eaten cold rather than hot (Heaton et al., 1988; Secor, 2009). Merrill and Watt (1955) showed how the digestibility of flour was directly affected by how it was milled. Finely milled flour could be completely digest, whereas sometimes as low as 60% of more roughly milled (i.e., less processed) flour might be digested. Interestingly, the cost of digesting a single large meal is greater than eating an equivalent amount of food in several small meals (Secor, 2009), but this is potentially off-set by the fact that eating several smaller meals keeps the basal metabolic rate higher (Bellisle et al., 1997).
Furthermore, in the fantastically unfair nature of biology, a person’s level of obesity can also change the energetic cost of digestion. Lean people tend to have a higher cost of digestion than obese people (Secor, 2009), meaning that a leaner person will expend more calories digesting the same meal compared to an obese person. It is unclear however, if obesity leads to a lower cost of digestion or the lower cost of digestion leads to obesity (…damn correlations!).