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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Success in a pill?

As athletes are we really so gullible. . .?

Just a short post today prior to our Comrades Marathon previews and coverage. One of our readers alerted us to a short blog post on the Runner's World website. It was so ludicrous that it was begging for us to take a look at this and clarify the points.

Marketing works

In a recent New York Times article by Gina Kolata, British physiologist Michael Rennie was quoted as saying that “It does seem to me that as a group, athletes are particularly gullible.” Unfortunately Dr. Rennie has pretty much nailed it with this statement, as products making outrageous claims of performance enhancement and success continue to do well, and new products are being introduced all the time. The fact that there is such a market for these things must indicate that people are buying them.

We have often spoken about the outrageous claims these manufacturers make, and how more often than not these claims have no scientific backing. We have also spoken about how science can be warped and bought to make these claims. In the end, though, when faced with strong marketing techniques that appeal to us on a number of different levels, humans as a bunch cave to these tactics and open our wallets, even when deep down we probably know that the claims are bogus. We will leave it to the psychologists to explain why we do this, but it is a known phenomena in marketing research.

Success in a pill

So when Derek sent us this link, we jumped at the opportunity to dissect this one. "Sports Legs" is a product claiming to. . .claiming to. . .well, actually they themselves do not make claims outright on their website, but instead have embedded the claims into athlete testimonials and product reviews in print media---a great marketing move on their part as it will appear that people other than the (biased) manufacturer is making the claims. There are too many to list here, but the one claim is that it "pre-loads your bloodstream with lactate and tricks your mucles into thinking they don't need to make more--a sneaky way to raise your lactate threshold and boost performance." The claims go on and on and all of them are equally outlandish.

The problem, as we have so many times stated here and hope our readers have learned by now, is that lactate does not cause fatigue. And no, the burn in your legs is not the result of the dreaded "lactic acid" as products like these claim.

The Sports Legs Muscle Trick

Even more fearsome than the Jedi Mind Trick, Sports Legs tricks the muscles into producing less lactate. Problem is that lactate is a product of carbohydrate metabolism, and as our exercise intensity increases we tend to rely more on carbohydrate and less on fat. In fact for most of us this shift from fat to carbohydrate occurs at relatively low intensities, and when when exercising at what many of us would call "tempo" pace, we are in all likelihood using exclusively carbohydrate as a fuel. So if the product actually does what it claims, then it is modulating your exercise metabolism so that you burn more fat at very high intensities. . .and if that is the case, then we must do a study and publish it in Nature as that would be a remarkable physiological feat!

It should be no surprise that as we exercise harder and harder the lactate concentration in our blood rises, because we are utilizing carbohydrates at higher and higher rates. Again, however, the lacate is not a cause of fatigue, and so their claim is senseless, as they say that the product actually increases the lactate concentration in the blood. Well, if lactate is the cause of fatigue as they claim, then how does that work?

Don't be a gullible athlete

Visit their website if you must read the claims for yourself, but we are surprised that they do not claim their product will also help men with erectile dysfunction, as the pills seem to be a cure for so many other things, including low bone density in cyclists. The main problem with the testimonials is that the athletes taking the product ingest it with massive expectations that it will produce all the effects it claims to. Therefore it is no surprise to us that users report experiencing these effects. . .this is otherwise known as the placebo effect.

To really test products like these, we must perform a double-blind and placebo controlled study. In doing so we hope to diminish or eliminate any bias from the participants or the researchers. Then let's evaluate the effects of the product, because then we have controlled for any placebo effect, and what we might find is that taking the placebo pills are no better than taking the actual product.

This is a bogus product, like so many that have come before it and so many that will come after it. It is probably not harming anyone who ingests it, although no long term studies have investigated this. However we find it highly improbable that it actually does any of the things it claims to do. Yet if an athlete truly believes that taking these pills will enhance their performance, then they probably will, and again this is the placebo effect, but an effect nonetheless.

Stay tuned for our Comrades Marathon coverage in the meantime. The race is this Sunday and will be over by the time the east coast of America wakes up, but we will have all the results and analysis right here!


Anonymous said...

Thanks guys. To be honest,I didn't ever go to the website, and I never saw all the outlandish claims they make. I just read the post on runnersworld, and came right here.

Regardless, point well taken. As athletes we tend to be gullible. One more reason why the science of sport blog is sucessful SOMEONE has to dispel all these theories! It remindes me of the VO2MAX cream or whatever it was that you posted about here, after you saw it at a marathon convention!

Thanks again guys!

Anonymous said...

Nice one, Ross.

I don't think athletes are any more gullible than the general public...which is to say we're very gullible, I know, ha ha. But what is undeniable is that Runners' World believes we're guillible. The "world's leading running magazine", as it calls itself, is increasingly losing what little grip it had on reality, and is now mostly concerned with selling us things.

Simon said...

As a PS: you'll also have a good time if you try looking for the science behind StemEnhance, which claims to be a "stem cell mobilizer" and is also beginning to be endorsed by athletes including 2007 Masters Athlete of the Year, world record-holder and world champion Nolan Shaheed.

There are no studies showing any benefits of taking the stuff and the suppliers instead say "Numerous empirical reports and testimonials testify to the health benefits of taking StemEnhance".

FAQ site here: http://www.stemenhancefaq.com/#response; a Google search on Stem Enhance will bring up thousands of network marketing and other distributors with prices ranging from $150 to $60 for 60 capsules.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Simon,

Thanks for the comment.

Interesting, one of the comments on that link on the Runner's World site was from a runner who saw a product being apparently "plugged" by RW in that same space. He promptly went out and bought a three-month supply of said product, only to feel very ripped off after the fact as he experienced no positive results.

He went on to chastise RW for promoting these things and not sticking to reporting!

So your conclusion about them losing their grip appears to be bang on, which is unfortunate for Runner's World and all the runners out there who turn to them for sound advice.

Thanks again for commenting!

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

I whole heartedly agree with Simon. Athletes are no different from any other group. Marketing is all about exploiting a need - finding the emotional button of a particular group and then pressing the right buttons. It does not matter that there are a few educated individuals who "understand" the bogus nature of the claims. For them, its important that there are more people who do not understand and will be willing to try such products without researching for the claims made by these folks.

Thats what makes your site so valuable :-). Its a forum for sharing knowledge.

A quick question on fat vs carbohydrates metabolism during exercise ? How does the body decide which source of energy to use ? How and when does the body decide to switch from fats to carbohydrates to the anaerobic pathway to generate energy ?

Look forward to your analysis of the Comrades marathon.

Anonymous said...

On another note, do you folks plan to include the ongoing Euro Cup 08 in your coverage. Would love to see updates. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

totally agree with you on this one; and some people will buy anything. (unfortunately that's usually me!) but have you guys seen the other runner's world (peak performance) post on caffeine?


also, would love to know your opinions on the original NY Times article, not sure I would agree with everything that is said... do you?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

thanks for the great response to the post.

Just a couple of comments, which hopefully address all of your responses:

first, Derek and Simon:

Thanks for the lead, Derek. you sent the link and it gave us an interesting topic to cover, so thank you! Then to both, i agree with Simon that athletes are not especially gullible, it's just that they create the "market need" for products. Other groups are pretty much the same though - there will always be a subset of the populations whose passion for what they enjoy can be exploited for financial gain.

As co-incidence would have it, last night, i gave an open talk at the Sports Science Institute of SA on Wellness and Weight loss. My topic was "The science of weight loss". And to cut a long story short, as I was researching some of the facts, I realised that what is happening to society in general is that as our "knowledge" progresses, more and more people are recognizing clever ways to exploit the "knowledge gap" to make money.

I do a great deal of reading of economics books, and there's this theory of "information asymmetry", where one party possesses a great deal more information than another. That's EXACTLY what is happening to athletes, and just about any other group. Some clever scientists (or "experts") come along and offer magical formulas to people who, without being disrespectful, are not informed enough to cut through the lies and know what the TRUTH is.

So i'd actually go so far as to say that the athlete is not being gullible as much as "Rational" but with insufficient information. Hey, if someone came to me with a way to improve my running/cycling/tennis, then I'd certainly consider it. If it sounded credible, then for sure, I'd buy it!

And there's the problem - access to information. So the only thing I can offer is that people need to empower themselves!

Developing from this post, I think what might be really interesting is to do a whole series on this kind of thing. My (Ross) personal interest is in the marketing side - I currently work for a sports management company and we do a great deal of marketing of teams, sports events and sponsorships (no supplements, luckily!). So it's something of a passion of mine, and Jonathan shares the cynicism.

So at some stage, we'll certainly tackle this in much more detail!

That would include the stemcell product, Simon, thanks for that tip-off! We'll certainly make a whole series of posts on these kinds of things! Consider it prioritized!

Then, to Vikram:

I'll answer your carbs question a little later - got a meeting to get to right now! But as for Euro 2008, yes, definitely. I'm watching it, and will post on it as soon as the teams have been "sorted" and we know what is happening to the tournament. But we'll comment, can't say how scientific it will be, but it will be covered!!! So much to write, so little time...!

Finally, to Ed:

The caffeine issue is also diarized, prioritized, and we'll do it in the future, at some stage!

Thanks again everyone