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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

NFL, Gatorade and bananas

It must have been the bananas

Superbowl Sunday has come and gone, and New York Giants played the part of giant slayers by upsetting the New England Patriots, a team that steam-rolled the competition during the regular season, and even when against the ropes always seemed to be able to pull out a win from somewhere. Not in Superbowl XLII however, and Manning (the younger one, amazingly) led the Giants to two fourth quarter scores to win the title.

There are plenty of talking heads and pundits on the web, television, and in print to provide you all the detailed analysis of the game you need. Neither of us have tremendous insight into the game of football, and so we will leave the breakdown to the other guys. However, there is one story that emerged from the Superbowl that does fall within our "playbook", so we thought we'd spend some time on that instead!

New York coach Tom Coughlin does not read The Science of Sport

Back in October of 2007 we did a series on muscle cramps. In it we looked at the different theories of cramps, looked at the prevailing and perhaps dogmatic theory, presented a novel theory to explain cramps, and finally used the debate around cramps to demonstrate how science and knowledge evolve as new evidence comes to light.

The gist of this debate is that for years cramps have been attributed to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances and deficiencies. We suspect many of you who played youth sports were told, when playing in hot weather, to eat lots of bananas. The hypothesis there is that potassium depletion causes muscle cramps, and it is commonly accepted that bananas are a food stuff that is rich in potassium. So, quite simply, to stave off cramps one must just eat plenty of bananas - elementary school knowledge (or so we thought), and it turns out that even in the Superbowl, they adhere to that same dogma!

So in the big game, late in the first half, the crack Fox TV broadcast team crossed to their onfield reporter, who informed the watching nation that as a result of the high humidity in the stadium (the roof was closed), the Giants players were having problems with cramps, and that the coaches, sharp as they are, immediately had boxes of bananas brought to the sidelines. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later the cameras spotted it---a pile of bananas on the Giants sideline!

The first important (though tongue-in-cheek) point here is that Tom Coughlin and his coaching staff clearly do not subscribe to The Science of Sport. . .or perhaps they do, but they missed our series on muscle cramps? The second interesting point is in spite of all of the technology the NFL teams and coaches have at their disposal, all the high-tech strategies they employ, their wealth of human resources---19 coaches for the Giants and 14 for the Patriots---they rely on techniques that are entirely unproven and which no scientific evidence supports.

And then thirdly, and perhaps most thought provoking, is that Gatorade are the Official sports drink of the NFL, and copious amounts of it are available on the side of the field. Yet for some reason, the Giants were not told this - they chose the banana instead of the Gatorade! So calling for the banana backup is an indication that...the Gatorade wasn't working...? That wasn't an ad you saw in the Superbowl! Imagine the tagline..."Gatorade appears NOT to prevent cramps. Try bananas instead..."

No, science does not always have the answer

Admittedly, science does not always have the answers. Human performance even in individual events is incredibly complex. One only has to look at our previous post for some insight into will power and motivation to understand that many factors, perhaps too many and too complicated to measure, predict performance.

But it is still fascinating that at what many consider the pinnacle of professional sports---the NFL---the coaching staff turns to bananas during a game to alleviate muscle cramps. This is a sport in which assistant coaches, perched high above, take moving and still pictures, analyze them, and relay information about their opponents down to the coach on the sidelines. It is a sport that makes exstensive use of video analysis as players watch hours of game film of opposing teams to "get to know" them and their offensive and defensivee formations. They appear to be on the edge of technology. . . or are they? The bananas suggest otherwise, and give hope that maybe there is room for basic science.

In any case, it was a cracker of a game, and in our honest opinion the better team on the day won the match. Somehow the Patriots never really looked like the team that dismantled their opponents 18 games in a row. The Giants found a way to get to them, and came out ahead as a result of their efforts.

Be sure to come back later this week as we move on to Part III of our series on exercise in the cold.


Ryan said...

I did think of your cramping articles during the game when the Giant's were going Bananas! I thought I'd mention it to you, but then you did an article. =)

Meg & Dave said...

The NFL is certainly not at the top of the sports medicine food chain.

A perfect example, which I almost commented about a week or two ago in your cold exposure posts, is the persistent cramps experienced by the smaller players in the Packers-Giants game which was played at temperatures of 0 to -5 degrees F (-18 to -20 C)

The defense spent huge amounts of time on the field. ~40-45 minutes of game time. The defensive backs experienced cramps in their legs at the end of the first half then again in the second half.

The players experiencing cramps are in the range of 6 feet tall and 160-180lbs (1.8meters 70-80kg) (low body fat) especially on their legs. They had EXPOSED skin above their socks (all they had below the knee) and their spandex playing shorts. They were wearing the exact same equipment they wear in June!

The fact that their doctors, of which they have many, did not veto the idea to think of the cold as something they could just play through by being mentally tough is beyond me.

Anyone who has gotten cold while trying to do something requiring any level of performance knows you get slugish and cramp much more quickly.

I think what it comes down to is that their are a lot of myths in sports physiology that are very deeply ingrained. Bananas and gatorade are certainly one of them. But I would bet their are many many more that athelets at all levels perscribe to for no good reason.


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Tammy said...

That's hilarious! I run into this kind of stuff a lot... "old school" coaches disrespecting any discussion on new research that goes against what they have always done, whether or not it has even been proven to work.

Sreten said...

Hi, I really like your blog and I consider myself lucky that I accidentally find it while I was surfing on "cramps" subject. So, you said in your last post that you are going to leave us with some advices on what we can do with preventing the cramps. I'm looking forward for them.

I also have a comment on the massage and I thing massaging can help to ones who are having predestination for them. I'm thinking when the cramps are occuring we of course have to take care of them but they can leave some fibers still in the contraction or spasm forming myogelosis in the muscle and they can trigger cramps next time even sooner. So, deep tissue massage, myotherapy by Bonnie Pruden or trigger point massage therapy can be on great help for that.

I'm courious to your thoughts about one other thing. What do you think about inhaling pure oxygen in half time or other brakes and also after practices (depending on sports, I work for the soccer team as physiotherapist so I'm familiar with half time)? And also with this maybe suplementaion og Fe (iron) or just eating the food rich with it.

And I have also a questioon about magnesium and calcium. You made pretty strong arguments about natrium and kalium that they don't have any roll in muscle cramps but what about lack of magnesium and calcium?

I apologize on my english since it's not my first language and I hope you will respond on my comment.

All the best to you,