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Sunday, June 05, 2011

ACSM overview: Wrapping up the high (and low) lights

Wrap-up of ACSM: The highlights (and a frustration)

Thanks to all for weighing in on the last post on the stagnant nature of sports science. Or rather, some aspects of sports science.  I know that the last week may have felt a little like an "insider conversation", but moving forward, I'm going to widen the scope and tackle some intriguing topics, inspired mostly by the week in Denver.

Attending ACSM has helped me understand more than ever that like any field, sports science suffers from the constant resistance of the “old guard” pushing back against new ideas. Not that I didn’t know it before…

This is a generalization, of course, because there are some outstanding scientists who, in the fourth or fifth decades of their careers, still challenge their own thinking and innovate and drive knowledge forward. But there are many who do not, and I think that in science, as soon as you begin to believe your own dogma, the drive to innovate is gone. And if you aren't challenging beliefs, then honestly, what are you doing in the sciences?

The solution I'd propose to this problem of "legacy science", is to open the symposia up to younger scientists, or at least those who have been prolific in that field within the last two years. Rather come up with the topics independent of the people you want to present, and then review the published literature and invite researchers who have published regularly and recently in that field. And every speaker really should end each presentation with some discussion of future areas and unanswered questions - meetings should catalyze future research, not congratulate itself for past accomplishments.

Days 2 and 3 - some highlights and great presentations

In any event, the rest of the conference went well, it improved a great deal and I was pleased to attend some very good talks and over the next few weeks I’ll try to roll some of those out here on the site.

Pacing strategy: A window into the experience of fatigue

My own presentation on pacing strategy was part of a symposium that I think was successful. It was very well attended and that’s a good sign for the field, because it suggests increased interest in pacing, which is still an unexplored area. The more minds involved, the better. So I'll use this forum to say thank you to Carl Foster and to Jos de Koning (who I know will read this!) for their support in the field, and to Carl for the invitation. A great privilege and I’d love to do it again.

I would be lying if I said I was happy with my own talk (I’d call it 6 out of 10, if I’m feeling generous), mostly because of time pressure and the impossible task of trying to present a model and all the research underlying it in a short time. It's always frustrating to feel that you've left a key concept or two unexplained, failed to emphasize and highlight the right things - it gives potential detractors too much leeway to undermine the theories.

Dismissals, misunderstandings, tap-dancing around the minefields and being ignored

One of the big challenges I experienced in preparing the presentation is that I’m constantly aware of a prevailing disdain and dismissal of anything related to pacing and the brain that comes from anyone associated with Prof Tim Noakes in Cape Town.  I think it’s fair to say that there’s a history of animosity against Noakes because of historical arguments about central governor vs. oxygen limitation models, and the dehydration/hyponatremia debate.  These issues date back 15 to 20 years, but the legacy still exists, as do the characters, and now seems to have been handed on a generation.

And so any time I am thinking about explaining the theory of how anticipatory regulation (summarized in the slide from my talk below) occurs, I feel the need to tap-dance around the potential minefields represented by those who have been offended in the past (rightly or wrongly).

The problem is that these historical divisions and personal arguments have led to a misunderstanding about what the model of performance regulation is actually saying. There are people who hear "central governor" and sneer and swear and pass crass jokes about it (respected scientists, yes).  And yes, there is growing support, because I think it's so logical and obvious, and I sometimes wonder if I’m paranoid about people’s perceptions of anything that comes out of Cape Town (because it seems that to some, anything and everything from Cape Town must be the same).  But then I am reminded of the attitudes by people at conferences like this one.

For example, one of the world authorities on the brain and exercise told me on Thursday evening that he thought the central governor was “BS, this little man in the brain telling you to slow down”.   I’ve never seen the paper where anyone has described a little man in the brain, but it shows that people don’t really know what they’re dismissing.  The funny thing is that even those who support the concept (and the whole central governor thing, to be clear, is a concept, a process, not a structure) use it as a noun - "the central governor slows you down".   I feel this is an oversimplification of the concept that leads to a fundamental barrier to its acceptance - to me (and perhaps I stand alone on this one), the "central governor" is not a structure or a single area, but a collection of many different processes, pathways, brain areas, that have a single purpose - anticipatory regulation of exercise performance through conscious effort perception.  It's for that reason that I didn't use the term "central governor" in my presentation or in the literature review where the model was proposed.

So in trying to present the theory, I feel the pressure of having to move forward to explain the model, while backpedaling to re-explain the theory that people dismissed the first time around because they didn't listen properly to it.  And this requires a really in-depth presentation of the theories. You can’t present a model for anticipatory regulation without putting the foundation in place properly, because one missed step or explanation and you hit one of the afore-mentioned minefields. And that squeezed out valuable time for the actual theory, forcing me to fly over certain areas.

At the very least, though, I hope that people recognize that there’s a substantial body of literature now available on the regulation of pacing. And what I’d really like is for those who are doing some great work (here, I emphasize my fellow presenters in the session) to actually consider what is being said, recognize that everyone actually agrees more than they realize, and then acknowledge the contribution that each is making, instead of inheriting some stupid, arrogant defiance of a theory that neither side is actually listening to or reading properly.

I plan to make a video of my presentation for you and put it on the site, in due course, so I’ll discuss this much more then.

The highlights

Best talk of the conference for me? Markus Amann’s presentation on afferent feedback and its effects on pacing strategy was excellent. He has incredible data, and I really believe it fits perfectly into the theory of regulation of exercise to avoid peripheral failure.  As does Romain Meeusen's - also brilliant data on how neurotransmitters in the brain may place a role in performance.  What both are missing is the insight into pacing strategy and anticipation/management of fatigue.  And, what the pacing strategy theory is missing is the insight into mechanisms, which Amann and Meeusen provide.  In other words, the combination of their work into the 'anticipatory model' is a perfect fit, from which both models would benefit.

Some of the other really good talks? There was a session on children and specialization that was interesting, in particular the second speaker who presented the case study of Michael Phelps and compared it to other swimmers, charting their paths to Olympic success. It will also provide good content in the not-too-distant future when I turn to the talent vs training debate, are champions born or made?

A session on mind-body and the limits to performance was very good. It introduced the concept of “benign masochism” to explain that elite athletes may be predisposed to enjoying pain (in training) that is not actually harmful, that elite athletes prefer to be just below the threshold of what is intolerable.

There was an interesting session on the East African runners, where Yannis Pitsilades presented his quest to find the genes that may or may not explain performance in that group. Every single world record in track is held by an athlete of African origin (West African for sprints, East African for distance and el-Guerrouj), and so there is a quest to discover the genes. Or, as the present culture seems to be leaning, to prove that the genes don't exist and that it's all down to hard work - see Outliers, Bounce and Talent Code for more.

So far, the gene search has turned up nothing, which has led many, including Matthew Syed of “Bounce” to speculated that there is no gene, that the success of these athletes is purely down to their training and hard work, combined with the opportunities they get.

This is a topic I’m going to tackle at some point – training vs talent, but what I will point out is this: Height is inherited, we know this. Yet genetic studies have failed to identify a single gene, or a combination of genes that predict it. The best studies are able to explain about 40% of height, and that took 200,000 different genetic polymorphisms! If that is the case for height, then how much more complex is something like athletic performance, which involves muscle, heart, lungs, brain, enzymes…? All I’ll say is good luck with that search! We won’t find those gene associations in this lifetime or the next, because there aren't enough Kenyans and Ethiopians to test to do it.

But this does not mean those genes do not exist - I am convinced that the advantage is partly genetic.  Not that training is not important, and of course the champions in any sport will work hard.  But without the right genes, hard work takes you to a ceiling.  Personally, I'd say it would be better to look for the differences in phenotype to explain their performances.

The barefoot running debate

And then finally, as a lead on to the next post, the other good symposium I attended was one on barefoot running - the debate rolls around again! This was a symposium where two big advocates for barefoot running spoke - Dan Lieberman and Irene Davis, and they have some compelling arguments.

But that is for another day! I'll do it in a bit more detail, early next week! Right now, it's time for a short break from academia! Now that ACSM is out the way, I'll start broadening the range of topics again, and get onto some great series - it may have felt like an "insider conversation" this past week! But starting with barefoot running, we'll tackle some topics next!