Understanding how to research a topic and debate it intelligently is a critical skill for anyone looking to gain a true and deep understanding of any subject matter.
When we’re talking fitness and athletic performance, knowing how to research a topic and develop a clear picture of the body of evidence for and against it will help keep you from being a fad follower or, worse, an uninformed trash talker.
So today, you’re going to learn how to make informed decisions about your training.
Research Isn’t Personal
A key concept is the difference between using scientific evidence, typically called evidence-based practice, and using anecdotal evidence.
Anecdotal evidence is purely observational. For example, that enormous, shredded guy at the gym swears by his pre-workout mix. Does that mean the pre-workout is that effective or that the guy has great genetics?
In contrast to anecdotal evidence, evidence-based practice is basing decisions on research evidence. That is, looking at a topic without preconceived notions and searching for the answer presented by the evidence.
“As you get better at reading studies, you’ll get better at reading the conclusion and going back to the results section to see if the two really line up.”
Previously, I’ve talked about how research is conducted and what to look for in a study to determine its quality. Now, we’ll look at how to find studies related to your topic and stack them against each other to really get a good picture of that topic.
Compiling Evidence for Your Argument
First, a couple of definitions. In the world of science, you have two levels of evidence, primary and secondary:
- Primary evidence is the original source that provided the evidence, meaning actual scientific studies.
- Secondary evidence is a source that references primary sources to make a statement. This would include things like textbooks, online articles, or news reports.
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If at all possible, you want to stick to primary evidence because secondary sources provide evidence using the author’s opinion of the primary resource. So, skip the middleman and go straight to the source.
Stay Current With Your Research
Assuming you’re not a subscriber to a wide variety of research journals, the best resource out there for primary sources for the general public is PubMed. This is run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and is an index of research articles posted in every major peer-reviewed journal.
How much research are we talking? PubMed adds an average of 2,000 to 4,000 articles a day from over 5,000 sources. It added over 700,000 articles in 2013. Seriously, we’re talking about a lot of data here!
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But with huge variety comes difficulty in searching and finding what you’re looking for. For example, at the time this article was written, a search for the term “creatine” came up with 50,412 articles. You definitely need to have a good search strategy to come up with the data you actually want. Fortunately, PubMed has a great set of tutorials that fully explain how to use the site and will teach you how to build your searches to find exactly what you’re after.
“Objectively reading the evidence and making a decision based on what you read is a critical skill both inside and outside the gym.”
Once you’ve got your search terms dialed in and you have a good result list, take a look at the tool bar on the left under the heading Publication Dates. At a minimum, you should be searching for topics published within the last ten years. Sticking to five years is even better. Seriously, you’re not gaining anything by looking at old, outdated studies unless you’re looking for a specific article you want to read. If an older article is still valid, I assure you it’s being used as a reference in newer studies.
For those without a subscription to the journal containing the article you want, you’ll only be able to read the abstract. Assuming the majority of you aren’t subscribers to a large number of academic journals or are college students with full library access, we’ll discuss the data available in an abstract.
How to Read Research Abstracts
A typical abstract will include a brief overview of each of a study’s sections: the purpose, methods, results and conclusions. While the abstract is a significantly shortened version of the full article (a typical article may be ten to twenty pages while an abstract is generally 100-200 words), the basic information you need is still all there.
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The first thing to look for in an abstract is the purpose. Look carefully at the purpose statement to see if the study actually relates to your topic. Researching a topic usually involves reading several studies that are similar, but not exactly the same as your topic. Think about how the body works and if a concept is similar enough to be related back to your topic. Is a study about the increased time to fatigue in repeated sprint trials after taking creatine the same concept as a study about repeat performance of swim sprints or high-rep squats? You bet it is!
The next section is methods. Here is where you should be looking for a lot of the information we discussed in the last article. Is the study an RCT? Were the researchers blinded? How many study groups were there? Was there more than one independent variable? All of this will be found in the methods section.
The results section can be confusing and requires careful reading. This section will be full of statistics and technical jargon. If you see terms you don’t understand, take the time to look them up. Really. Do it. Learning the terms used in measurement and analysis for research will only make you better at learning how to read studies and will help you better understand the results section immediately.
Finally, there is the conclusion. This is where the author will explain what the study found as related to the purpose listed at the beginning. As you get better at reading studies, you’ll get better at reading the conclusion and going back to the results section to see if the two really line up.
Putting Together Your Argument
Now you know how to search and how to read an abstract, so how do you really research a topic? We’ve already covered the first step, which is to collect quality studies conducted as recently as possible and then compare the conclusions. But how much evidence do you need? What about the contradictions?
In compiling studies on your own, you need to look for a strong majority of the studies you find to support your position. While there’s not a generally accepted percentage, many researchers look for 80% or more of the studies on a topic to support a position before they consider the evidence conclusive.
“If at all possible, you want to stick to primary evidence because secondary sources provide evidence using the author’s opinion of the primary resource.”
Another tool at your disposal is review studies. Typically titled as a meta-analysis or literature review, these are studies that compile as many studies related to a topic as possible into one article and compare the methods and results to find common conclusions. This is a great way to get a feeling for the whole body of evidence about a topic and can save you a ton of work.
Always Be Open to Learning
Finally, remember to be objective. Keep an open mind and learn about the topic before making a decision. It’s human nature to look for evidence that supports your opinion and to disregard evidence to the contrary. Objectively reading the evidence and making a decision based on what you read is a critical skill both inside and outside the gym.
Keep in mind that the human body is amazingly complicated and we’re learning more about how it responds to exercise and nutrition every day. Don’t get stuck in one set of beliefs because that’s the way you originally learned it. Keep reading. Keep learning. And by all means, keep having productive, informed debates.
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