Bullshit Science: Advertisements are not research

One of the trends I think we’ve all seen in recent years are the number of formerly good websites that disguise paid advertisements as independent articles. In fact, it has become difficult for me to actually read an article on any Competitor website (e.g., Velo) article without feeling like someone is trying to sell me on some product or service. What is worse, though, is how much of this information is total bullshit, including articles and videos masquerading as science. Which brings me to my current post on bullshit science, courtesy of the guys over at GCN, one of the most ubiquitous advertisers on Velo. In this video the guys at GCN “does science” that’s already been done and published a few different ways, and far more thoroughly than their single rider test. I know this because I published one of those papers (Harnish 07 Cycling Position) myself. What the GCN guys manage to do here, as in many of there other experiments, is to pretend that they are cutting edge by replicating controlled research using a single rider and then making conclusions that often differ from the research. Keep reading and I’ll explain why they get the climbing research all wrong.

Rule #1: Research never proves anything

I will largely ignore the fact that they did their testing on a treadmill, which is quite different than an actual road climb. Instead, I’ll jump ahead to possibly the best part of the entire video comes at minute 8 when the “experts” at GCN talk in circles using nothing but their nonsense experiment and a lot of supposition to give you advice that is more or less meaningless. Case in point, your host opens his conclusion with this:

“Now I think its worth saying as well, though, because we proved, not conclusively, but there was no significant difference between purely riding seated and in and out of the saddle…”

This single statement underlines just how clueless these guys are on science. First, proving something is being conclusive, so he admits they proved nothing, which I’ll give that. Second, they actually compared nothing really, because they used only one single submax steady state effort seated with the same effort using an alternating seated vs standing position; i.e., their experiment is answering a different question, namely, how alternating positions for short periods of time impacts the physiological impacts of climbing. Third, they came to the same overall conclusions that Tom Swensen and I did 7 years ago, that their is no overall difference. The problem, they then turn around and ignore all the published research and their own findings to assert that seated is probably better. Why the hell did you run the test in the first place?!

What the research says

I cannot fault these guys for trying to look sciencey, but they could have easily done a better job by bringing the research to life to do their comparison, all the while educating their audience. Instead, I suspect they have no clue what the research says. If you want to really explore this topic, our paper has a complete list of references, including the classic treadmill studies by Ryschon, Swain and a nice field study by Millet. Rather than rehash our paper I’ll review why we did the study, how we did it, and what we found.

The driving force for the paper was the absence of data for actual uphill road cycling. We had acquired all the equipment, including a Cosmed for VO2 analysis and one of the very first Power Taps available (yes, I’ve been using a power meter since 1999). We were also highly motivated to study Chris Carmichael’s claims that higher cadences leading to lower lactate levels (which we did show was not true).

Following lab testing, our subjects (Vo2 max ~70 ml/kg/min) completed a series of 1.9 km climbs with an average gradient of 5%. All subjects used the same power tap wheel equipped with the same gearing, which included 25t cog. Coupled with the mild gradient and large gear selection, subject’s could choose their preferred cadence. They all completed a 25 min low intensity warm up, then completed two series of hill climbs, one seated and one standing (randomized), at the following three intensities: LOW, MEDIUM and HIGH, which corresponded to approximately 50, 65 and 75% of their PPO, respectively.

Our overall findings were as interesting for what we did not find as they were for what we did. Here’s the summary:

  • Cyclists rode all seated and standing conditions at the same % of power output for each intensity
  • There were NO DIFFERENCES in blood lactate, oxygen use, HR, or RPE for any trials
  • Standing climbing resulted in a significantly LOWER cadence (~20 rpm); i.e., cadence has no impact on the above physiological responses
  • On a mild climb with optimal gearing, cyclists road at about 80 rpm seated
  • Interestingly, ventilation (the amount of air you breathe in) and breaths per minute was significantly higher when standing
  • A final maximal trial, where cyclists could change position, showed that cyclists spent ~34% of the time standing.

Conclusions

The purpose of this article is to again help you the reader navigate through the endless maze of sham marketing and nonsensical pseudo-science. As a coach, I want to make money like everyone else, but I simply will not be reduced to selling bullshit. From the available data, and real world competition, cyclists prefer a higher cadence when seated, but most tend to stay seated for more than half the time. The major advantage here has also been proven (I would say conclusively); seated climbing is more aerodynamic. That being said, there are many examples of world class standing climbers. Physiologically speaking, there are no major concerns/differences between the two positions, so personal preference should dictate your position. Finally, there is no evidence to support the claim that higher cadences are economical than lower cadences.

FOLLOW-UP: The GCN guys responded to my comments, stating that the at least we got the same results. But did we? Only in that they reported no differences. However, our conclusions were very different. They ignored their own conclusions and recommended staying seated, while the research indicates it doesn’t much matter, unless aerodynamics is a priority (which it probably should be). It’s cool to bring research to life in a video, but for heaven’s sake, can you at least get some advice when you do it?

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