Desert Errors

A story worth pondering:

In the summer of 1942 [Edward] Adolph, a physiologist at the University of Rochester in New York state, wanted to find out how people could live and work efficiently in the desert and how to get the best out of them. …

Adolph was the first to test the presumptions most people still have about what to do if forced to make any sort of effort in extreme heat. Most, he discovered, were myths. Stripping to T-shirt and shorts, for instance, is not the best way to cope with dehydrating conditions. Long sleeves and long trousers may feel hotter, but they'll slow the loss of water. Nor is there any point in rationing water when supplies are low. Putting off drinking it merely makes you unhappier sooner. "It is better," wrote Adolph, "to have the water inside you than to carry it."

The most important of Adolph's findings was the simplest: drinking during exercise improves performance. Today, we take this for granted, but generations of coaches and distance runners were taught that drinking during exercise was for wimps. …

Adolph tested the old assumptions by splitting his soldiers into two groups. Both marched through the desert for up to 8 hours during the time of year when the average afternoon high was 42ยฐC. The soldiers in one group were allowed to drink as much water as they wanted and the others weren't allowed any. The results were clear: the drinkers outperformed the non-drinkers. …

His findings stayed secret until 1947, when he was allowed to publish his pioneering Physiology of Man in the Desert. It went almost entirely unnoticed. In the late 1960s, marathon runners were still advised not to drink during races and until 1977, runners in international competitions were banned from taking water in the first 11 kilometres and after that were allowed water only every 5 kilometres.

So not only were authorities dead wrong, but they were so confidently wrong that, in the name of helping runners, they paternalistically forced runners to do the exact worst thing!  How could authorities be so wrong for so long on something that was so easy to personally test, and with such huge consequences?  And how could they remain wrong for three decades after careful study had proved them wrong?

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  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    It seems that in the areas of diet, exercise, and anything else that impacts directly on vanity, good information is incredibly hard to get hold of. I’m sure things are better than they were in 1977, but someone looking for exercise advice today will still have a hard time finding the science among the pseudoscience.

  • http://atheorist.livejournal.com Johnicholas

    The prescriptions on drinking apparently seemed so reasonable that they didn’t need experimental justification.

    My takeaway is that we should be building and strengthening justification chains (and nets and cathedrals) for everything that we believe is settled, not just “edgy” ideas like dark energy.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/andrewgelman Andrew

    My impression is that, before the mid-70s, marathons were a pretty small-time thing, so it just wasn’t a big deal what the rules were.

  • http://silasx.blogspot.com Silas

    Wow, I never knew there was a second Adolf who tested human body limits in 1942!

    (Sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist…)

  • grb

    I think that the results vary depending on the amount of water available, and that these results are only applicable to the unlimited water available case (I’ve tried the experiment on myself).

    Suppose you have 500cc of water available on a 6 hour desert hike starting from an initially dehydrated position. The effort of carrying the water outside of you vs inside of you (where it will evaporate or be excreted) is pretty minimal.

    The human body does adapt to the desert environment; the earlier you dehydrate it the sooner it starts sucking water from the stool, shutting down sweat glands, etc.. Linearizing the limited water consumption provides a much more efficient use of water over the interval.

    I don’t think that this applies to the 2 liter case, however.

  • http://asymptosis.com Steve Roth

    One word: margarine.

  • Schell

    Why would a marathon organizer go out of his way to look for rather obscure research on desert physiology, when he can simply ask a trainer about hydration? The trainer probably works in the same building [and would also have missed Adolf’s publication]! I’m sure information like that, esoteric as is now, was probably MUCH harder to come by in 77. It would require knowing what you’re looking for before you start looking for it. It would require multiple trips to the library and certainly a visit to the microfiche reader. I doubt it was ignored when published, but I doubt it made a big enough splash to get the “health food” nuts interested.

    This does mention a good point about making information available, and how inefficient humans are at disseminating that information amongst themselves. I had an episode like this a couple days ago. I had to get a battery charger from Sears at 9 in the morning. Sears doesn’t open until 10. I waited in the front for an hour and a half until they opened at 10:30 and asked a clerk where the battery chargers were. She said they’re across the street at the Sears AutoZone. Sears AutoZone is open at 8. Ignorance and laziness.

  • Mike

    As someone into bodybuilding subculture, this has given me a chuckle. Nutritionists [sic] still claim that a high protein diet is “bad for the kidneys” (whatever that means). There is no research – outside of research done on people who ALREADY had kidney problems – supporting that claim. Bodybuilders, for decades, have eating high protein. There are no stacks of “problem kidneys” among the group.

    The protein-kidney nonsense is but one of many stupid things people with years of education [sic] are confident about.

  • Cyan

    Psst — “sic” is just Latin for “thus”. It’s not a generalized stupidity marker; its purpose is to note that an error in a quoted block of text is in the primary text and did not originate in the transcription.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    I also see “sic” used in non-quoted text to emphasize that the preceding word really is the intended one, rather than a mistake. I read Mike’s implicit meaning as “I know it’s hard to believe that such stupid people could earn the title ‘nutritionists’, but that’s really what they’re called!”

  • Dagon

    until 1977, runners in international competitions were banned from taking water in the first 11 kilometres and after that were allowed water only every 5 kilometres.

    I read this datum as an indication that benefits of drinking water during a race were known to rule-makers. There would be no reason to ban something that gives no advantage.

    It’s possible the rule motivation was a combination of two beliefs: 1) that it’s long-term harmful; and 2) that it’s short-term advantageous.

  • Mike

    Cyan: Soon you’ll tell us that it’s wrong to begin a sentence with: “But.” But that would be off-topic. And so I will not answer your charge, per the guideline that: “Comments should be … on topic [].” ๐Ÿ˜‰

    On topic: Experts [sic] are silly when it comes to steroids, too. Until recently, experts claimed that steroids were not performance enhancing. Once that lie was exposed, experts claimed that steroids were dangerous: Steroids will kill you, or give you cancer. That lie is being exposed.

    In fact, lose doses of testosterone has been shown to increase health.

    The experts are usually wrong when it comes to sports science. Why? Mr. Hanson could do a much better post than I could. Plus, the guidelines state my comment must be “short.”

    Let’s just say: Follow the money. Who funds studies on anabolic steroid use? Is it cheaper to treat depression using HRT (hormone replacement therapy) or Prozac?

    Re: the “high protein is dangerous” meme. Who funds studies on nutrition? Who endowed the first nutrition science programs?

  • Nick Tarleton

    Re: the “high protein is dangerous” meme. Who funds studies on nutrition? Who endowed the first nutrition science programs?

    Why don’t you tell us?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p01157082a035970b Grant

    In summers during my undergraduate days, I worked at a gold mine in the desert of California (next valley west of Death Valley). There was one guy there who had been working in the desert (previously in Yuma, AZ) for many years and always wore a long sleeve sweatshirt (Long pants were mandatory for safety reasons). When I was told why he did it (the argument above, about not exposing skin to the sun to minimize water loss), I accepted his argument as correct. This did not lead to my wearing long sleeves, however. Somewhere in my mind the idea that I would feel like I was being baked overrode my acceptance of his reasoning. I didn’t even test the idea. Some “instinct” like thought told me it was wrong.

  • Marshall

    This is why I have some suspicion of “experts” (or, more accurately, why I refuse to accept some conclusions merely on the basis of their authority). As a law student, it astonishes me sometimes how judicial reasoning is often based on little more than institutional myths and biases. Policymakers can and do simply put away stuff that conflicts with “the answer they were so sure they’d get”. At the same time, experts who are too sure of their own findings, tend to merely systematise their mistakes so that they remain undiscovered for a long time (see for example, the socio-psychological assumptions made by the ‘experts’ who were instrumental in creating Britain’s divisive and ineffective tripartite education system after WW2).

  • http://singyourownlullaby.blogspot.com mariana

    three decades being wrong, that’s nothing, look at the states, korean war, vietnam, … , iraq , today, do the math, it is even longer. And I do not consider this statment politic, just ask yourself why does the state have the right to tell other countries how they should be and force them by using violence to be like they want.

  • http://www.stuckk.net jhust

    i can’t wait to see what kinds of similar things are accepted as truth now, but will be ridiculed 25, 50, 100 years down the road.

    i think there’s already some evidence that the way we think about running shoes needs to change – that current shoes encourage runners to slam their heels against the payment and also cause muscles around the arch to atrophy from disuse. i don’t know what a better shoe will look like, but the 2050 article trashing nike shox (even with the ipod insert) is going to be amazing.

  • http://liberatingminds.forumotion.com/forum.htm Vichy

    Paul Crowley said, “It seems that in the areas of diet, exercise, and anything else that impacts directly on vanity, good information is incredibly hard to get hold of.”
    This might not apply to atheletes, but I suspect much of it is people wanting to get something-for-nothing; so they tend to look for ‘schemes’ that will work; rather than accepting the hard effort, clean eating and limitations of genetics.
    Much the same way get-rich-quick schemes work, I suspect.

    Mike said, “As someone into bodybuilding subculture, this has given me a chuckle.”
    I knew Bob Clapp, a 70-something year old body building anarchist, and I used to have a good time listening to his stories about all the total nonsense in popular culture about excercise and body-building specifically. He wrote a ‘White Paper’ about steroids, as well as a semi-coherent book where he attacks, ‘luddites and mystics’.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/ThanatosSavehn Thanatos Savehn

    Do-gooders sacrifice humans to the god of their personal reputation while sceptics cry “Wait!”; and yet they escape this universe unpunished. This is not news.

  • Alex

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ketoacidosis

    I think it’s high protein/low carbohydrate diets that are believed to present a health risk, not simply eating lots of protein.

    There’s also the distinct issue of whether high protein intake is necessary for a bodybuilder. As far as I remember from my exercise physiology days, the answer is no. Endurance athletes need more protein than is typically part of a modern diet, but bodybuilders usually don’t.

    A thousand apologies for being off topic. Very interesting post (as always) from Robin.

  • Mike

    Alex illustrates, unfortunately, all that is falsely taught as “sports science” or “exercise physiology.”

    For example: “There’s also the distinct issue of whether high protein intake is necessary for a bodybuilder.” This isn’t an issue – let alone a distinct one. It’s only an issue among so-called experts.

    No one has every put on an appreciable amount of muscle mass while eating low-protein. Outside of some outlier, it can’t be done. Even vegetarian bodybuilders must find a way to eat a lot of protein. And yet people still act as this issue is debatable. Or that the tens-of-thousands of people who have built appreciable muscle mass are somehow doing it wrong!

    Where are all of these bodybuilders with large muscles who DO NOT eat high protein? Do any exist? How can experts so confidently say that there is a “distinct issue” about protein requirements when they are able to show any bodies built with low-protein diets?

    The great thing about bodybuilding is that it’s observable science. A body is a human laboratory. Give someone x-substance. See if their muscles grow. There’s no abstract math involves. No debates about singularities. It’s basic observation. Did the muscles get bigger?

    So where are the observable people with large amounts of muscle who eat low-protein? I can point to tens-of-thousands of people who gained appreciable muscle using high protein. Shouldn’t the burden be on your professors to establish that high protein is not necessary?

    Re: Ketosis. The very Wiki article cited as authority notes: “Two common types are diabetic and alcoholic ketoacidosis.”

    Yet that ignores that a person can quite healthfully bring himself into a state of ketosis. Ketoacidosis is life-threatened for a diabetic. I can live in ketosis without any problems at all. Indeed, I’m on a low-carb diet. I am in ketosis right now.

    If my mom, a diabetic, got into ketosis: She’d be dead in a few hours. I am not a diabetic, though.

    That a person can pass a class without recognizing this basic distinction illustrates exactly the type of junk taught in these nutrition and physiology courses. No offense to you, Alex, as it’s not your fault that your teacher taught psuedo-science.

  • Anonymous Associate

    re: drinking water during exercise

    I distinctly remember in eighth grade health class (1991-92) being confidently instructed that drinking water during exercise was unhealthy. We were told that it was extremely important to drink plenty of water before and after exercise, but never during.

    And based on my personal experiences in high school (1992-96), it would not surprise me in the least if there are still football coaches out there who insist that drinking water during practice is for wimps and withhold water breaks in order to “toughen up” the players.

  • Alex

    1) By “distinct”, I meant “separate”.
    2) I’m not an expert.
    3) No offense taken.

    “No one has every put on an appreciable amount of muscle mass while eating low-protein. Outside of some outlier, it can’t be done. Even vegetarian bodybuilders must find a way to eat a lot of protein.”

    A lot of protein, like, perhaps as much as 1.2 g/kg bodyweight/day? That would be plenty, even for someone doing intense strength training. Most people get this much. Please don’t assume I’m implying anything more than this. I’m not advocating a low-protein diet, unless you think 1.2g/kg is low protein.

    As far as I can tell, the evidence supports this view.

    A review of studies that have examined the protein requirements of strength-trained athletes, using nitrogen balance methodology, has shown a modest increase in requirements in this group. At the same time, several studies have shown that strength training, consistent with the anabolic stimulus for protein synthesis it provides, actually increases the efficiency of use of protein, which reduces dietary protein requirements. Various studies have shown that strength-trained athletes habitually consume protein intakes higher than required. A positive energy balance is required for anabolism, so a requirement for โ€œextraโ€ protein over and above normal values also appears not to be a critical issue for competitive athletes because most would have to be in positive energy balance to compete effectively. At present there is no evidence to suggest that supplements are required for optimal muscle growth or strength gain. Strength-trained athletes should consume protein consistent with general population guidelines, or 12% to 15% of energy from protein.

    Protein requirements and supplementation in strength sports Nutrition, Volume 20, Issue 7, Pages 689-695. S.Phillips

    If you think that a greater amount is beneficial, please give a number and your evidence. I don’t mind being shown that I’m mistaken, and I’ll happily update my opinions if need be.

    “The great thing about bodybuilding is that it’s observable science. A body is a human laboratory. Give someone x-substance. See if their muscles grow.”

    … compared to a similar group of participants randomly assigned inert placebo “y”, of course. Otherwise there could be other explanations for your observation.

    As far as I can tell, the situation is exactly the opposite of what you claim. “High protein for strength athletes” is similar to “no water during exercise”; assumed to be true, even obvious, only to be falsified by later study.

  • Mike

    Alex: Read the fine print in the study you cite: “A review of studies that have examined the protein requirements of strength-trained athletes, ***using nitrogen balance methodology,*** has shown a modest increase in requirements in this group.”

    Here is what they do. Some scientist determine that a given number is a positive nitrogen balance. The further conclude that a positive nitrogen balance is all that is needed for anabolism. They they reason: If there is a positive nitrogen balance at x-grams of protein per day, then more protein is not needed.

    What the studies do not do is something that would be very simple to do:
    Control group: Give them 50 grams of supplemental dextrose powder or other placebo.
    Protein group: Give them 50 grams of protein.

    Follow the groups for 6 to 12 months. Determine who has actually gained more muscle mass.

    Again, that is not what the studies do. Instead, some lab guys come up with a formula. Heck, read the study your cited. There are a lot of formulas. Where are the bodies?
    http://www.purdue.edu/swo/healthshop/nutrition/HealthyWeightGain/ProteinReqAndSupplInStrengthSports.pdf

    When you come up with a formula, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else (including successful people) is wrong. However, bodybuilding is not cosmology or futurism. With sports nutrition, you can test the validity of your theories by seeing what happens with actual, human bodies.

    If you know of any studies that actually look at protein intake and body composition involving humans and actual muscle gain over time, I’d love to see them. I spend quite a bit of money on protein-rich foods. Save me some money, please. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    “As far as I can tell, the situation is exactly the opposite of what you claim. ‘High protein for strength athletes” is similar to ‘no water during exercise’; assumed to be true, even obvious, only to be falsified by later study.'”

    In the history of bodybuilding, people started off with higher carbs and lower protein. The dogma was that one needed higher carbs. It was only after bodybuilders experimented with high protein diets that the high-protein “dogma” was established.

    The study you cite is a great example of the theory-practice dichotomy that exists in science. People come up with formulas and test urine for nitrogen rather than observe actual body compositions in subjects. If the end goal is to determine what puts actual muscle on a body, why are people staring at cups of fee instead of flexing biceps?

    Again, bodybuilding involves real people gaining (or not) on muscle. Wouldn’t it be more reliable to observe whether a person gains muscle than test urine based on assumptions of what that urine shows?

  • mitchell porter

    It seems that being an “expert” is sometimes a matter of being expert regarding one’s own opinions (or the opinions defining a certain consensus) and the arguments one can offer in their favor, rather than being expert about the reality ostensibly under discussion.

  • Alex

    Mike: It was difficult to find a randomized trial that didn’t involve equations or lab work, but here’s one.

    I’m confident that other similar studies exist. Since you have such a clear interest and financial stake in the matter and I have neither, feel free to carry on the literature review at your leisure.

    Mitchell: Good obseration. The difference between “expert on” and “expert at”, perhaps?

  • Alex

    I swear I know how to embed a link !

  • Mike

    mitchell: Astute observation; bravo! An expert has merely mastered his discipline. What if that discipline is alchemy? Society doesn’t ask whether the person’s discipline is legitimate. Rather, all society cares about is whether a person is an expert.

    Alex: The study you cited involved “novice bodybuilders.” If you Google [newbie gains,] you’ll see the problem with studying a group of novices. A gym novice can do amazing things, including gaining muscle while losing fat – which is nearly impossible for an advanced trainee to do without use of steroids. An informed person would not have even studied a group of novice. That the authors of the study didn’t even realize how using a sampling of newbies would skew the results, alas, illustrates the ignorance of people studying these issues.

    It’s been a good discussion, nonetheless. Thank you.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/halfinney Hal Finney

    Mike, I think the point of Robin’s story was not that ivory tower scientists in their labs overlook basic truths known by athletes in the field; rather, in this case the athletes themselves were misunderstanding the value of water for distance runners. Apparently, for decades, long distance runners believed that drinking water during races and training was bad for them and avoided water consumption, the opposite of what is now believed to be true. These were athletes who had every incentive to learn the truth, to experiment on themselves and try various things to see what works. A successful strategy would be expected to be copied and widely applied among other competitors. Yet this did not happen, they continued to cling to their accepted beliefs for many years.

    Given that the long distance running community could make such a mistake, why should we believe that bodybuilders are immune? Isn’t it just as possible that the beliefs of bodybuilders are as much folklore as reality, based in tradition more than testing? In my experience, such beliefs are almost immune to falsification. If a bodybuilder ups his protein intake but still can’t increase mass, this isn’t viewed as evidence against the value of protein. Instead, a myriad of excuses will be offered: he didn’t work out hard enough, or he ate too much bad food, or some other aspect of his program was wrong.

    Plus there are problems due to expectation effects. If someone believes eating high protein will help them, maybe they subconsciously work out harder when they eat that way. Or consider the long distance runners, I’ll bet plenty of runners tried drinking water while training and felt sick afterwards, confirming their expectations. Beliefs can be very influential and it is hard to untangle them from results. That’s why the double blind placebo controlled study was invented.

  • http://www.gdunge.com/ Doug Weathers

    My favorite example of this type of blindness is the “normal” temperature of the human body, 98.6 degrees F.

    This figure was determined in 1861.

    It’s wrong. A 1992 study found the actual value to be 98.2 degrees F.

    Why did it take us so long to figure this out?

  • Mike

    “Given that the long distance running community could make such a mistake, why should we believe that bodybuilders are immune? ”

    Hal: We should not. However, I read Robin’s post differently. It was the authorities who prevented runners from drinking water. Why have a rule saying runners can’t drink until the 11 km mark unless some (or many) runners would have intended to drink water? I suspect many runners DID want to drink water. Yet they were prevented from doing so by Know Everything Experts.

    With bodybuilding, experts tell people who have built large muscles, essentially, that those bodybuilders are “doing it wrong.” That’s a peculiar argument. Even if we want to say that we can’t assume bodybuilders have protein requirements figured out, don’t we have a serious issue of burden of proof?

    f everyone (and excluding some odd balls, it really is everyone) with big muscles eats a high-protein diet: Shouldn’t the experts be required to put forth a compelling case proving that the protein was unnecessary? As Hume would say: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A claim that everyone with large muscles somehow made some mistake seems, to me, to be an extraordinary claim. Do you disagree?

    To prove this extraordinary claim, experts show you cups off pee. “Look a the nitrogen in this urine!”

    Is that an appropriate way to meet one’s burden of proof?

    So while this discussion might have seemed off topic, I think it’s not. Here, there is a large group of people who have found success. Experts consider this large group of people as ignoramuses. Experts want this group of successful people to change their eating habits based on the nitrogen content of urine.

    How typical!

  • The Heat Guy

    A 1992 study found the actual value to be 98.2 degrees F.
    Why did it take us so long to figure this out?

    Probably because 98.6 degrees F is exactly 37 degrees C, whereas 98.2 degrees F is 36.7777 degrees C.

    It was probably easier to remember 37 degrees than 36.7777 degrees.

    Also the Wikipedia page says 98.6 is the “commonly accepted average core body temperature” whereas 98.2 is the “average oral (under the tongue) measurement”. So your premise might be wrong.

    Actually the WP article goes on to justify that “98.6 degrees F is an inappropriately exact conversion of Wunderlich’s 19th century announcement that the human body temperature is 37 degrees C”.

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