The most difficult part of being an athlete in the information age is not the lack but the abundance of information. Back in the "good old days" the tried and true strategies were passed along from the more experienced generation to the newer crop of athletes. Didn't matter so much that many of the "truths" passed along were eventually debunked by athletes who either didn't benefit from the "truth," or by scientists who finally asked the question, "does this stuff really work?"
Now, the problem is that there is too much information, and most of it is either wrong or lacking in detail. Take for example the use of compression wear; I can see a BOLD TYPE HEADLINE on the cover of a running magazine, see an article in a major newspaper's health and wellness section, and receive an e-mail from a sportswear manufacturer about a pair of tights which will (as I've written before) guarantee faster marathon performances, decreased muscle damage and world peace.
Once I've paid my $7.50 at the local bookseller for the running mag, I find little more than a three-sentence blurb referring to a research article. Which happens to be the same article referred to by the major paper. And, worst of all, neither the article or the blurb...or the advertising for that matter, say anything close to what the research really said.
I'm not saying that fitness writers are foolish people, but sometimes I wonder if research articles, and the fine art of gleaning pertinent information from them, are covered deeply enough in journalism schools. It doesn't take too much, though, to look at the original article copy (which in most cases are hyperlinked to on-line newspaper articles) and see what the researchers REALLY had to say.
The scientific method, for those of us who might have forgotten it from high school, can be summed up this way:
Smart people try stuff out.
I wonder if I can duplicate it?
What happens if I change a variable?
I better write this down so someone else can try it later.
When it comes to the "write this down" part of science, research articles are set up in a fairly standard form: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion. The title is pretty much that 25-words-or-less "what happens" statement. That's what makes research so easy to find.
The abstract is for those persons who don't have a lot of time to spend reading lots of words or looking at pretty graphs and charts. Each of the sections are boiled down to one or two sentences each; perfect for search engines and the like. The introduction gives the researchers time to talk about what inspired them to do the research; any studies they felt like replicating, or what variable caught their attention. In the case of compression wear, for example, was there a difference between sprinters and distance runners? This is where the hypothesis is written, the "I think this will happen when I change this variable..." statement.
The method section goes into the details of how the experiment was performed, just in case another researcher months or years down the road wants to test out the theory to see if the same thing happens. This is where you find out if elite athletes were tested, or if treadmills were used, or the kind of treadmill, shoe, sports drink, etc. One of the thing to look out for when reading the hypothesis or method of the test is the difference in control and treatment. If a researcher is testing whether a sports drink is effective, are they comparing to water...no fluid...a different sports drink...or a different dosage. Sometimes the researcher intentionally or unintentionally skews the difference between control and treatment to favor their hypothesis. In my humble opinion this is the second piece of the article...but of the most importance.
In most cases the results section of a research paper - unless you've studied statistics - is of the least importance. If you've studied statistics then you will probably be able to assume for yourself whether or not a researcher uses the terms "of statistical significance," which you'll find mentioned (or not) in the discussion section. This is the place where the researchers are going to tell the reader, "we tried this and found that." Even more important, this section is going to tell you the, "if we had it to do all over again, we'd try this," or the "if we can get some more money for research, and perhaps a few well-intentioned undergraduate student assistants, we'd like to look at..." statements.
So if an article's abstract catches your attention, then go to the article's discussion, where the really smart folks can tell you why they think they got the question figured out right. After that, if you want to know what got them to that point, you can go to the references section at the back of the paper. Lots of footnotes usually means more refinement on an old question...or another group of folks saying, "it works, and here's why."