5 Sports Science Studies That “Failed”

The real fun at scientific conferences is in the poster sessions. While the big keynote talks tend to focus on well-established research trends, the posters offer an unfiltered glimpse of hunches, works in progress, and wild ideas. As a science journalist, my pre-conference ritual involves poring over the list of poster titles looking for interesting possibilities, then racing around the poster hall to check out the actual posters, where researchers have laid out their latest findings and analyses, and finding out which crazy hunches appear to have paid off.

It’s fun, but I’m increasingly realizing that it’s also problematic. If the only studies you hear about are the ones that produce seemingly positive results, you end up with a distorted impression of how reliable those results are. At a huge conference like the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, there are literally hundreds of posters investigating possible performance boosters. Simple probability dictates that you’re going to end up with some false positives among them—and those results will seem more impressive if you ignore all the negative results.

So, in that spirit, I dug through my notebooks to pull out five studies I’ve seen at conferences this fall that I thought were really cool—but didn’t produce the “right” result. I should make absolutely clear that calling them “failed” studies in the title is completely tongue in cheek: These studies were designed to test various hypotheses, and they’re equally successful whether they confirm or reject those hypotheses.

It’s also important to note that, as is typical for poster presentations, these are mostly small experiments, in some cases intended as pilot or exploratory studies. The results may change as more subjects are tested or as the study design is refined based on the pilot results. What’s interesting to me is the opportunity to get a sense of the ideas researchers are pursuing and the theories they’re considering. It’s not about the answers (at this point, anyway); it’s about the questions.

Do Stronger Ultramarathoners Run Faster?

This was an abstract presented by Michael Rogers of Simon Fraser University at the Sport Innovation Summit in Vancouver in October. He and his colleagues performed a series of strength tests, including deadlift, grip strength, and vertical jump, on 12 competitors in a 50K mountain race. More so than in flat races, climbing up and down mountain trails…

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