Think yourself faster: Critical thinking

If I said I could save you a fortune in equipment every year, would you listen? If I said I could help you optimise your training, would you want to know?  Read on, because that’s what I’m going to do, that is unless you’ve already got the skill I’m going to talk about.

ch bike


My favourite magazine used to be ProCycling. The photographs are great and I loved the bike test articles. My other-half wasn’t best pleased when I cancelled my subscription and started getting the British Journal of Photography instead (She pulls a face whenever I mention cameras, much preferring to read about the good, bad and ugly of the cycling world). So why did I take such a momentous decision? Well, there were a number of factors, but the main one was that I was fed up of reading a glowing review of the latest superbike only to see a double-page advertisement for the bike a few pages later. Would the editor allow a negative review to be published when a major income stream was coming from the bike’s manufacturer. You can make up your own mind.

Everyday we’re hit with masses of information, trying to influence our views or the choices we make. Most of the media revolves around trying to sell something. Even in peer reviewed academic journals, authors are giving their perspective. Who should we listen to?

Critical thinking is a method or practice that is used to process and interpret information to enable us to reach logical and meaningful conclusions on its usefulness or significance. If you are a coach, it is vital that you use critical thinking to make appropriate and justifiable decisions when developing Annual Plans, suggesting training or nutritional strategies or when advising on equipment. In fact, I believe that Critical Thinking is one of the most important skills a coach requires.

In this week’s blog, I’ll go through how to evaluate information, critical thinking and my perspective on evidence based practice. Hopefully, it will help you make ‘right’ decisions, more of the time, which can’t be a bad thing.

open 5

Evaluating Information

Recently, a research study was reported in the national press outlining that drinking 500ml of beetroot juice per day improved performance by approximately 14%. Wow….taking that statement at face value would mean a reduction of 3-4mins in a 10km run! WADA would be calling for a ban of beetroot!

The use of critical thinking will allow you make sense of and evaluate such evidence, helping you provide your athletes with the best advice possible. But how do you do so?  The following framework shows how:

  • Where does the evidence come from? High impact peer reviewed journals are best*, as the editors who review submissions must ensure that proper methodology has been followed to ensure that any claims are justifiable. Limitations of using journal articles are that they are generally written by experts for experts and can be very difficult to understand and interpret. Furthermore, many journal articles can only be accessed free of charge through academic institutions or for a fee, generally in excess of £20.00.Bike magazines, internet pages or newspapers are far more accessible and can provide useful information. However, you should be aware that authors may not be experts and are not always wholly objective or may misinterpret information from other sources.
  • How was the evidence collected? Is it valid, reliable and objective?
  • What is the evidence to suggest that a particular training practice/training practice/component of equipment works?
  • Is the evidence independent? Does the source providing the evidence have a commercial interest? Be especially careful when a manufacturer states that a product will make your rider go faster.
  • Is any new practice/use of equipment safe and ethical?


The articles within the national press regarding the performance benefits of supplementing diet with beetroot juice seem quite clear. However, are the study findings applicable to you? Critical thinking, using the processes outlined above, is required before reasonable conclusions can be reached. Table 1 applies the above framework to the findings, providing you with a process that you may wish to follow in the future.

Table 1. Application of a critical thinking framework

Type of Evidence
  • Published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a high impact academic journal, which publishes original physiology research and generally has practical application.
  • Valid and reliable methods will have been used. Conclusions drawn from the collected data will be justified. These are pre-requisite requirements required by a research ethics committee and the editorial panel.
  • Much of the information presented is highly scientific and difficult to interpret for a non-physiologist i.e. some expert knowledge is required to make sense of the original research.
How was the evidence collected?
  • It was an appropriately designed laboratory-based study using valid and reliable equipment.
  • Participants in the study were recreationally trained males.
  • Metabolic measurements were made using an intensity corresponding to approximately zone 2.
  • Time to exhaustion trials were used to assess the effect of beetroot juice on performance. Intensity of these trials corresponded to zone 5-6.
Does it work?
  • The results are applicable to recreationally trained males, although the mechanisms responsible for the effects of beetroot juice on performance suggest that the results could be applicable to trained cyclists.
  • Beetroot juice improved exercise efficiency at an intensity corresponding to approximately zone 2, although the effects on actual performance at this intensity were not identified.
  • Time to exhaustion was increased by approximately 14% in zone 5-6. Such an improvement would equate to approximately six seconds improvement in a time trial of around 10 minutes.
Is the evidence independent?
  • Yes. Any conflicts of interest would normally be stated in articles published in a reputable journal.
Is the new practice/evidence safe and ethical?
  • The risk of supplementing diet with 500ml of beetroot juice per day is probably negligible. However, the nitrates within beetroot could have a toxic effect when combined with other types of nutritional supplementation, and health risks may slightly increase.

Based on the evidence presented, it is likely that supplementing a rider’s diet with beetroot juice may result in worthwhile performance benefits, but to minimise potential health risks, this is probably best achieved under the supervision of a professionally trained nutritionist. Reaching such conclusions involved accessing, reading and understanding the evidence from the original source. Potential health risks were identified using a subsequent article in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

It is very important that you understand the limitations of your knowledge and seek guidance from an appropriately qualified professional if you do not fully understand the implications of the original evidence. You should not rely on magazine or internet articles unless you are satisfied that the author of the article has followed a similar process to the one detailed above.

Academic Evidence
I’m a cynic for good reason.  Although evidence based practice underpins many of my thought processes, I still often rely on my own (subjective) instinct to reach conclusions. I’m more likely to accept something if I know, trust and respect the author or if something simply makes sense.Imagine being Eratosthenes the ancient Greek astronomer who ‘discovered’ the earth was round. You had good evidence for your findings but those on the editorial board of the Journal of Greek Decumbency’s all had published work on the world being flat. Do you think the editors would publish research that refuted their previous findings?

Yes, “but there’s hundreds of potential journals to publish in the 21st century so it’s simply a case of publishing elsewhere, you may say” ! Ahh… but wait….it’s not that simple. Challenging convention in science isn’t that much different now to the days of Eratosthenes. The risk of being stoned or being burnt at the stake is, however, slightly reduced now.


Bias and fraud cannot be eliminated in science because the publication process, and indeed human thought processes are flawed. For example, I’ve plagiarised and added to the key points in a recent Guardian article: Scientific Fraud is Rife: it’s time to stand up for good science:

  • There is pressure to publish in “high impact” journals, at all research career levels. Therefore, researchers often focus on ‘easy wins’ and sacrifice quantity over impact.
  • Statistical analyses are hard, and sometimes researchers get it wrong or use methods of analyses that produce the findings they are looking for,
  • Journals favour positive results over null findings, even though null findings from a well conducted study are just as informative.
  • The way journal articles are assessed is inconsistent and secretive, and allows statistical errors to creep through
  • Replication studies to confirm or refute previous findings are rare
  • Related to the last point, it would be easier to publish a study that demonstrated that wearing Ugg boots reduce ground reaction forces as it is original and novel research. However, it would be more challenging to publish later work replicating the study but demonstrating Ugg boots do no such thing.

That’s not to say that all academic research is rubbish. Rather, even if an article is published in Nature it’s important to apply critical thinking to reach your own conclusions.

Evaluating Equipment

The selection of appropriate equipment and clothing can impact on performance significantly. It is important that you use critical thinking to enable you to guide your rider to making appropriate choices.

To assist in this process, you need to balance a number of factors to reach a conclusion. Many of the processes outlined in Table 1 are equally applicable to analysing equipment choice. However, much of information provided on equipment is based on a manufacturer’s marketing material or the subjective opinion of a few journalists. Therefore, you need to consider if the equipment will:

  • Reduce drag
  • reduce resistive forces acting
  • help improve handling or technique
  • be strong or durable enough
  • comply with the appropriate regulations

Tony in the SRM Workshop
Tony in the SRM Workshop

However, this information may not be available to you and much of the decision will be based on subjective preferences and available budget, as there is often little to separate most performance-orientated equipment. Saying that, I didn’t apply these principles when I purchased my Dura ace Di2 equipped super bike! It was simply bling and makes a great noise when I change gear. It satisfies me!

Evidence-based Practice

Making decisions using critical thinking generally involves using evidence-based practice. Evidence-based practice involves looking at previous evidence in a systematic and logical manner to reach a justifiable conclusion. Basing coaching practice on subjective decision making in many instances may lead to poorer decisions being made. For example, if you were coaching a female rider who reported that her saddle was uncomfortable, subjectively, recommending a saddle with a cut-out mid-section may seem quite reasonable. However, based on objective evidence, in the majority of instances, this may confound discomfort by concentrating the force transmitted through the saddle to a smaller area in the pelvic region.

That is not to say that evidence-based practice should be used all the time. In fact, by doing so, you may become a less creative and effective. Often new methods, which may enhance performance, may not be backed up by evidence, but overlooking them may mean missing something that would benefit your. In such instances, you must consider the potential risks involved and, if they are negligible, then you can then rely on what you intuitively think. There are many instances where we do not know why something works, but we know it does. Similarly, if you believe that something will benefit his performance because of the placebo effect, there is good evidence to show that it probably will. Conversely, if you believe something will negatively affect your performance, it probably will.

Tri running


Critical thinking and evidence-based practice are likely help you to make effective decisions more often. It is important that you remain creative and that you consider new ideas but objectivity should dominate decision making.


5 thoughts on “Think yourself faster: Critical thinking”

  1. Excellent post.

    ‘It is very important that you understand the limitations of your knowledge and seek guidance from an appropriately qualified professional if you do not fully understand the implications of the original evidence. ‘ This is probably one of most difficult things for many people to accept as a first step to practising what you are preaching here. Furthermore, acceptance is not free of risk because of the various snake oil merchants, some with qualifications, roaming the world.

    As you say, one large obstacle is the use of statistical data. They are always subject to interpretation and manipulation, as the beetroot example illustrates beautifully. Politicians and marketers, and even academics, do it routinely, and gullible reporters regurgitate juicy bits or further manipulate the data to suit their preconceived conclusions. The methodology of study may be virtually irreproachable, but people may still choose to present only select pieces of data to support a certain interpretation that is not obvious from the complete study. And, round and round we go…

    1. Thanks for your comments. Wholeheartedly agree!

      It is difficult for inexperienced coaches to engage with professionals , due to confidence, financial constraints or the ability of ‘experts’ to disseminate their knowledge appropriately.

      Rather, one of my Raison d’être’s is to encourage critical thinking in coaches through the use of open questions and rational debate…….quite a challenge where a human tendency is to go for the path of least resistance.

    1. There is definitely less chance of being burnt at the stake than in history past, so I stand by that statement. On reflection though, I would say that I cannot back up my statement on stoning….so withdraw it 🙂

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