Running from Pseudoscience

Today, like thousands of others, I ran a half-marathon (21.1k) as part of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon weekend. One of the fun parts about running in a huge race (besides the race itself) is going to the race expo. Now, the non-runners might think a running expo would be pretty boring: shoes and some clothing, right? Wrong. The expo is your opportunity to buy anything even remotely related to running. Not just clothing, but electronics, food, and all sorts of products that will surely make you run farther, faster, and with less pain.

Friday, I went to the Toronto Marathon Expo to register, pick up my race kit, and see all the products I didn’t know I needed. It didn’t disappoint. From samples of cereal and energy bars to free microwave egg cookers (really!) I was soon walking around with bags full of food, drinks, and brochures.

Bring thousands of nervous runners to a giant marketplace, and what else do you find? Lots of pseudoscience for sale. Here’s two of the highlights:

My first stop was the the Power Balance booth. Essentially a silicone bracelet with a hologram (no, really) on it, the Power Balance will apparently make you run faster and stronger.  How? By “working with your body’s energy field.” Since I’d recently seen Power Balance reviewed by Richard Saunders and the Australian Skeptics, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I saw the booth and the demonstration taking place:

Brian Dunning summarizes the trick in his post on the Power Balance:

The demonstration they use to prove that it works is an old stage magician’s trick called Applied Kinesiology. With a couple of very subtle tricks, the performer is able to fool the victim into thinking he has either more or less strength. Power Balance didn’t even change the name of the trick, presumably guessing that people are too stupid to look it up on the Internet to see how it’s done (unfortunately, they’re right about this, all too often). Power Balance bracelets are sold just on the strength of this illusion. Watch a video of Australian skeptic Richard Saunders perform the trick in the exact same way the Power Balance salesmen do. Compare this to Power Balance’s own sales video here.

Does the Power Balance do anything? Only if you believe in the power of placebo.

The next aisle over, I came across another new running innovation: Zanagen: Applied Cellular Science. The company sells two products: Ignite (“Topically delivered cellular performance, designed to maximize physical performance by combating muscular fatigue”) and Xccelerate (“Topically delivered cellular recovery, decreases inflammation and oxidative stress associated with increased exercise”).

These products look like spray-on deodorants, but cost $100 for the pair. To use it, you apply it to your skin above the muscles you want to effect.  I asked the sales rep how it was determined these products were so effective at improving performance and speeding recovery. I was directed to the website for “all the published trials”.  So browsing the website, I found lots of vague statements like this:

Performance and recovery start at a single cell and the clinical experts at ZANAGEN®  know this and have scientifically engineered the development of two performance enhancing and therapeutically potent topical creams called IGNITE® and XCCELERATE® to meet the needs of today’s progressive athletes and therapists.  Our re-invention of topical therapy is based on deep transdermal delivery and supportive cellular healing mechanisms which are designed to maximize performance and therapeutic efficacy.

Unfortunately, I found no clinical trials, either on the website or PubMed, but loads of testimonials, including several from health professionals, like this one, from a pharmacist:

As a practicing clinical pharmacist, I am continuously researching advances in new medical and alternative medical treatments for health-related conditions. I was recently introduced to a set of topicals called IGNITE® and XCCELERATE® which are designed with the intent of treating connective tissue disorders.  After carefully reviewing the indication, pharmacology, interactions and usage of the products, I was confident that both products were safe however could not definitively determine if they would be clinically beneficial for people who suffer from acute myofascial and/or tendinopathy injuries as mentioned on the indication for use.

I decided to put these products through a rigorous test and have personally observed the following benefits in a record time frame:

* Increase range of motion which is likely attributed to improved muscle elasticity and reduced tightness.
* Significant reduction in pain, inflammation and swelling after 1 day use.

I am going to start recommending to my patients that if they want an effective OTC to locally relieve and/or treat their soft tissue injury, they should seriously consider using IGNITE® and XCCELERATE®. You won’t be disappointed.

Personal observations may be adequate evidence of efficacy sufficient for that pharmacist, but not for this one. So let’s look at the ingredients: arginine, fatty acids, radix angelicae, emu oil, pomegranate, and superoxide dismutase. Doing my own research, I could find no evidence to suggest these products would have any meaningful effects. If a topical product is going to cost me $50, I want to see some objective evidence to support the claims of efficacy. But this product doesn’t deliver.

It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, to see pseudoscience at running expos. These products are targeted at a runner’s biggest fear: injury. Runners can be obsessive, and we’ll do pretty much anything that allows us to keep running, preferably without pain. Combine a personal interest in improvement with slick marketing, and add in some testimonials, and you’ve set the stage for some significant placebo effects.

There’s much more to cover from the expo, but I’ll leave it for now, and savor my race today. While running can feel magical, there’s no magic to running performance. One of my favourite running quotes, ironically, comes from Oprah Winfey:

“Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.”

There are no shortcuts and no quick fixes. And that applies equally to running and your health.

8 Responses to “Running from Pseudoscience”

  1. Anthony says:

    As a recent convert to more serious running events, the whole area is a nightmare in science terms. Marginal performance gains in small studies in high performance individuals are used to make sweeping statements about the benefits of intervention X in more general runners.

  2. Jeff says:

    Great article, but I thought ‘the power of placebo’ has been proven?

    Also, don’t the MD kind of doctors use ‘personal observation’ all of the time when making presentations to each other? I think your pharmacist brother/sister was just following their example ;-)

    Personally I think any professional who concludes anything based on non double-blind statistically valid data should have a giant L tattooed on their forehead.

  3. Jeff Orchard says:

    I’d never heard of Power Balance before. The stupid… it hurts! Thanks for bringing this stuff to my attention. The general public needs to be reminded that Shaq gets paid to play basketball, not for critical thinking.

  4. I’m a runner with an injury (old knee reconstruction flaring up from ACL tear), and yes injury is a big concern for runners. I have spent (wasted) money on special braces and topical rubs to make the pain go away. It doesn’t. And so I await an appointment with my surgeon.

  5. Tara says:

    The power of the placebo is really the power of the mind, and you can find all sorts of examples where this has had great success in prevention and healing.

    I do agree with you that many of these items are just scams, but is does sound like you may need to open yourself up to the possibility that what is not testable, does not make it untrue.

    • Scott Gavura says:

      @Tara
      Except Power Bands are testable, they have been tested, and they provide no objective benefit. And placebos do not provide objective benefits. Steven Novella summarized this well:

      Placebo effects are largely an illusion of various well-known psychological factors and errors in perception, memory, and cognition – confirmation bias, regression to the mean, post-hoc fallacy, optimism bias, risk justification, suggestibility, expectation bias, and failure to account for multiple variables. There are also variable (depending on the symptoms being treated) and subjective effects from improved mood and outlook.

      Concluding from all of this that a treatment “works”, when a treatment appears to be followed by improved symptoms, is like concluding that an alleged psychic’s power “works” whenever their random guessing hits. This is why anecdotal experience is as worthless in determining if a treatment works as is taking the subjective experience of a target of a cold reading in determining if a psychic’s power is genuine.

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  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.