Sunday, 15 March 2015

Food, training and psychology

I am not a food expert, nor a psychologist. Nor a psychiatrist for that matter. Nevertheless, here I am crossing into their territories.

There's a well-known psychological phenomenon called the "Hawthorne Effect" (full disclosure: I had to look up the name. I remembered the effect, not its title!). In a nutshell, a Chicago-based electric company, Hawthorne Works, which employed 45,000 people, wanted to increase productivity. With so many employees, even a minute improvement would vastly improve profits. They hired an outside group to monitor what changes in worker's environments would lead to increases in manufacturing output. To quote the wiki article:
The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made, and slumped when the study ended. It was suggested that the productivity gain occurred as a result of the motivational effect on the workers of the interest being shown in them.
The changes could be arbitrary. Re-arranging workers, dimming lights (or increasing wattage), cleaning work stations. Whatever didn't directly interfere with the actual work done seems to improve overall productivity by up to 30%. But the effects were short-lived, of course, lasting a few weeks at most.

Educational research leans much the same way. Again quoting the same wiki article "Richard E. Clark and Brenda M. Sugrue in a review of educational research say that uncontrolled novelty effects cause on average 30% of a standard deviation rise (i.e. 50%–63% score rise), which decays to small level after 8 weeks." This is one of the reasons chartered schools, though made popular after the documentary Waiting for Superman, have experienced some inevitable performance declines from their initial expectations.

Making arbitrary changes can lead to real, though temporary, improved results. Moral? I was reading the opening passage of "The Feed Zone", a cookbook for athletes honed on experiences of feeding a elite american cycling team. And I thought this passage about gluten was interesting:
 In the 2008 Tour de France, the Garmin cycling team did something that no other team had done before - the team went almost entirely gluten free...I thought the idea was worth exploring. So we did it...most of the riders felt the change really helped them... To date I am not an advocate of either a gluten-free or gluten-rich diet. But if athletes tell me they are doing better without wheat, regardless or presence of Celiac disease, I am likely to believe them.
This sort of thing is what irritates those involved in the hard sciences. The self-fulfilling causality of the Hawthorne effect muddles what improvements really matter in physical training versus those which are psychological and ultimately temporary. Yet with the stakes so high, it doesn't really matter why an improved effect takes place, only that it does.

Again with the Hawthorne effect in mind, consider coach Wetmore's strategy in Running with the Buffaloes (p. 25):
Even if everything goes perfectly, his team can expect a new wrinkle or two in the following year's plan. This is because Wetmore sees a danger  in not changing and becoming, as he sees it 'old and curmudgeonly'. He constantly refines the recipe that has brought him success his entire coaching career. 
Perhaps Wetmore does not himself know exactly why he must constantly tweak his runner's plans. Still, he does.

Even being aware of placebos does not eliminate their effect. To know that you are being given a nothing more than an empty pill can still give you an edge. Consider Ben Goldacre's piece "Placebo effect works even if patients know they're getting a sham drug". The mind is readily accepting of any positive reinforcement, real or imagined. Some easy-to-come-by examples include

  • Knee-high 'compression' socks
  • Homeopathy (a placebo by definition)
  • Vitamin and/or protein megadoses (While on the Carleton ski team I recall guys buying "animal pack" vitamin mixes. A hard-training, though less-than-skeptical bunch they were)
  • Lucky charm bracelets
  • Gluten-free foods (as mentioned earlier)
  • Most organic foods. Sorry guys.

Point being we are happy to be fooled in part because if we feel happy, confident about our choices. And however arbitrary they might be, we sometimes actually do better.

Perhaps the reverse is also true. It seems probable, once you are trained in these topic, to try rattling and manipulating your rivals into dead-ends. Knowing of their willingness to suspend belief, could you can plant clever seeds of doubt in their collective minds?

Altitude training comes to mind. Although non-organic (not to be confused with an inorganic) food consumers are satisfied with their choice, those left training at sea level have been told for years their ways are inferior to runners, cyclists living at higher altitudes. And swimmers too, the ultimate in sea-level trainers. There is a realtive dearth of swimmers who engage in altitude training for obvious reasons, yet they try nonetheless. To wit, in an article title High Hopes: Altitude Training for Swimmers, one athlete in the "pro-altitude" camp said "The biggest value is the mental toughness it provides". Then later in the article, another is quoted

"I can quantify the physiological, but a good part of it was psychological,"

Knowing what we do about the Hawthorne effect, it is likely most "altitude/hypoxia" improvements are mental. Whether or not hematocrit levels rise or fall, this is really about confidence training. Therefore the main point to consider is not who has access to such frivolities, but who does not.

Another more common example is the regimented training log.

The problem that always arises, and I do mean always, is that for a long-duration training program you might miss a day (illness, too busy, injured, or tired). What does one do? Skip training, shift everything by one day, or redistribute mileage next week to make up for lost time? This negative-feedback psychology is dangerous, in particular for inexperienced runners, but also at the collegiate-level. For the record, mileage is mostly an illusion, a yardstick and nothing more. Helpful when things are going well, but potentially harmful when over-analyzed.

It is entirely possible certain athletes under-perform knowing they lacked certain magic training tools (altitude, 'perfect training program', vitamin packs, etc). I would argue the biggest drawback to the Hawthrone effect is from those left unable to afford extravagances and accommodate changing circumstances. In a worst-case scenario limited funding and effort might be wasted on a promising few in lieu of more basic, all-purpose training services and education. How to choose between sending 5 top runners to an altitude camp, or 15 runners to a regular one? To me the choice would be clear, but to others perhaps less so.

I'll wrap up by saying awareness is half the battle. Manipulating mental energy can be a powerful tool both for yourself and against others. Use it well; athletics aside, it may even save your life. I learned, for instance, the survival rate amongst pancreatic cancer patients is lower for opt-out patients compared with those enrolled in the experimental drug studies who took the (double-blind) placebo!  The optimism that came with enrolling was in itself a contributing factor in patient's health. Were I ever to have a similar misfortune, signing up for any/all experiments seems like the smartest move. Optimism is powerful, doubt is too. There will always be a learning curve where to put your time and money into training. Try to avoid getting fleeced in the process.

No comments:

Post a Comment