Examine the Evidence: Research vs. Anecdotes

Now, by this time, you all know that I’m a big advocate for research and research-based information. However, I also don’t think that we can completely negate those things that may not be based in research, or at least not based in research yet.

The average total time in review for a research paper is 7.676 months. That does not factor in the potential years prior from inception of the idea, proposal, data gathering, analyzing the data, and the initial drafts of the paper prior to submission to a journal. This information then either is read by consumers, or there is a waiting period before the science makes it into the textbooks and mainstream media. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people outside of academia who read countless research articles. Especially not frequent enough to read one every 20 minutes, a rate that an employee at Delve Health states is how frequently they post new research.

We need to fill the time gaps between completed research and paper publication; this is the time when anecdotal evidence is crucial. Exploring how other people have trained and comparing it to our own situation may allow us to determine whether or not we should incorporate a change. Let’s break down three areas in which anecdotal evidence is sometimes crucial: food and supplements, training, and recovery.

Foods and Supplements: What specific diet should I follow? Is fasted cardio in the morning a good idea? Do BCAAs really help training and recovery post-training?

When we look these concepts up in the research, you’ll see mixed-reviews for many. Read forums, personal accounts, and Instagram captions, you’ll see even more mixed reviews. We have to take the time, balance the information, and weigh our options prior to making a decision. Let’s use fasted cardio as an example. The research shows that fasted cardio (performing a cardiovascular training session in the morning, without consuming food prior) does not enhance fat loss and may, in fact, lead to muscle loss as well as decreased performance. Here’s a summary, if you want to delve deeper.

However, personally, I enjoy and have met many people who enjoy training in the morning without eating before. I don’t feel as if I perform my best if I eat within two hours of working out. And there’s no way I’m waking up 2 hours early for my 6am training session! So, as a result, I often strength train and do cardio fasted. I enjoy it. Does it help with fat loss? I’m not sure, personally, but there are numerous accounts and anecdotes of people saying they believe that it does. I don’t think we can discount the experiences of these people, but we must also look at it from a reflective point of view. Examine the evidence, recognize the two sides to the story, and see how best we would be able to incorporate it into our sessions, if we incorporate it at all!

Training: What training program should I use personally? Should I train in the morning or evening? Should I do my cardio or my strength training first?

When we dive into the accounts of training programs, we see even greater mixed results. For years, textbooks have stated that sets of 8-12 reps are best for hypertrophy, or muscle building. However, when we look at the research, there is evidence of hypertrophy with sets of 3-5 reps; the traditional rep scheme for those looking to build strength. And vice versa! Strength increases are seen with 8-12 reps as well. It all depends on the exact measures of strength or hypertrophy that were measured throughout the study.

As with the fasted cardio debate, personal accounts yield an equally confusing picture when we talk about if you should strength train or do cardio first during a workout. Personally, if I’m performing a lot of lower body exercises, I’ll opt for cardio second to save my legs. However, if I know I’m doing a more upper body focused day, I’ll usually do cardio first so I can better keep my heart rate up during my strength training, which is typically lower intensity on an upper body day. It all depends!

My advice to clients is to prioritize what you most want to accomplish. If you’re training for a marathon, run first and strength train second. If you’re trying to set a personal record (or PR) for your squat, I would squat first and then run after.

Recovery: Should I foam roll? Does cryotherapy work? What about meditation?

Foam rolling is perhaps the best example for anecdotal evidence taking the place of research-based information. The research based information is entirely mixed. Some shows benefit in a specific population. Other experiments show no evidence of a positive effect. In addition, many variables are unaccounted for: How long did they foam roll? What type of foam roller was used? What pressure was placed on the foam roller? There’s a wide array of faults and holes in the research. Since foam rolling is a relatively new mode of recovery, it’s the hope that many of these gaps will be filled in the future.

But until that point, we rely on personal experience and the experience of others. Do you feel as if foam rolling helps? Then incorporate it! Do you hate it and prefer a massage? Find a local massage therapist and schedule an appointment. Do you feel like it decreases your strength if you do it right before working out? Try taking 10-15 minutes at night as you’re watching TV to roll out sore muscles.

Ultimately, it’s about weighing the variables and discovering what works best for you. Whether you’re considering anecdotal or scientific evidence, you are the best predictor of what works for you. Don’t choose a diet protocol or training program and expect to look like the person who created them. Results always vary. Even if the research is consistent, you may be the outlier. Health and fitness is an n=1 experiment.

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