BBC’s Panorama this week exposed the paucity of evidence behind some of the products involved in sports. I have to say, overall, I wasn’t impressed with the programme – they had an agenda and fought to find evidence to suggest these products didn’t work. A more balanced view would have been more helpful but it does raise a broader question on sports and rehab, “is anything backed up by research evidence?”

Let’s look at some thoughts from the research on common sports practices and treatments;

Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (PRICE) has been central to acute soft tissue injury management for many years despite a paucity of high-quality, empirical evidence to support the various components or as a collective treatment package.” Bleakley, Glasgow and MacAuley 2012

“While studies of strength, biomechanics, stretching, warm-up, nutrition, shoes, and psychological factors all raise intriguing questions about both the etiology and the prevention of running injuries, strong evidence that modifying any of these will prevent running injury requires further research.” Fields et al 2010

“The prescription of PECH running shoes (shoes with elevated cushioned heels and pronation control features tailored to foot type) is considered best practice when prescribing shoes to distance runners. However, the findings of biomechanical and epidemiological studies continue to call into question the efficacy and safety of this approach…..This systematic review found that PECH running shoes have never been tested in controlled clinical trials. Their effect on running injury rates, enjoyment, performance, osteoarthritis risk, physical activity levels and overall athlete health and wellbeing remain unknown. The prescription of this shoe type to distance runners is not evidence based.” Richards, Magin and Callister 2008

Core stability exercises are no more effective than, and will not prevent injury more than, any other forms of exercise or physical therapy.” Lederman 2008

“In conclusion, there was little quality evidence to support the use of KT (Kinesio Taping) over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries” Williams et al. 2012

So we shouldn’t use ice, stretching, warm-up, running shoes, core stability or kinesio tape? Should we just stop everything?

There’s more, I could go on and on (like usual!) but I’ve made my point…there is a surprising lack of evidence behind much of what we do, is it fair of the BBC to pick on just those things recommended by big sports companies? Also worth pointing out that for every opinion, like those above, there will be another piece of research saying the something different.

Research is part of our reasoning process, not the entirety of it. Experience and individual circumstances make up much of our decision making process. So ice may not have great research but I’ve seen it work for hundreds of people so I will continue to recommend it. Warm-up may not have concrete evidence to show it reduces injury risk but I feel a whole lot more comfortable running if I’ve warmed up properly so I’ll keep doing it. The literature on running shoes might be inconclusive but when a patient presents with plantar fasciitis and can’t even walk barefoot I won’t be telling them to run barefoot! The shoes vs barefoot running is a huge topic for discussion and one Panorama really failed to cover fairly.

Panorama told us that an isotonic drink is no better than a jam sandwich! One of my favourite tweets last night was this by @sportprofbrewer;

Research itself is a limited tool. You have to ask how does it repeatedly fail to show that treatments work when we see them doing so again and again with our patients? Literature also fails to simulate the way physiotherapy works. We assess, form a diagnosis and identify key problem areas (like weakness, stiffness, poor control etc.). Our treatment is based on this and the individuals circumstances – level of pain, other medical conditions, work situation etc etc. Research, by comparison, often uses an intervention to treat a specific diagnosis. For example are quads strengthening exercises effective for patellofemoral pain? They probably will be for those with weak quads, probably not for those with weak glutes or a tight ITB or any of the other potential causes. What happens is a “washing out” effect whereby some of the patients get better but not enough to reach a “statistical significance” and they conclude “quads strengthening may improve patellofemoral pain but more research is required…”

There is of course, no doubt that research has it’s role in our decision making process and there is some fantastic work being done but we need to acknowledge its limitations. Your experience and what works for you is as important, if not more so.

The BBC raised some useful points and it’s important to question a manufacturers claims, which, to be fair to them was the aim of their programme. But when it comes to sports practices, products and treatments there is a much bigger decision making process than just using research. So you can retrieve your expensive trainers from the bin. Stop pouring your performance drinks down the sink and put your ice pack back in the freezer before it defrosts – it’s not all as useless as the literature might have you believe!



  1. Great post! I also felt the same about Panorama last night, I felt they just didn’t present a balanced argument nor did they fully investigate some of the topics they discussed and seemed to just skim over some really large, complex issues. I definitely won’t be chucking away my stability trainers or trying to overcome my lucozade addiction (yes, it has become an addiction) ha.

    Keep the great posts coming x

  2. Great piece Tom, totally agree with you, research should be looked at but not followed blindly, there has to be room for personal choice and preference and experience of what works best in the real world not the lab..

  3. Thank you for a great post, Tom! I was also disappointed with the program.
    The problem with research is that it answers (or hopes to answer) one tiny question using a sample of people. If the researchers get their sample wrong, the results will be useless. We therefore cannot just read the conclusions or the abstract of an article, but we should look at the methods to see if the sample is correctly chosen. As you say yourself, don’t put people with weak gluts in the same bag as those with weak quads! Unfortunately, good research is hard to do…

  4. Really great post. Research will always be difficult because humans do not fall into neat little boxes. Going off topic the media reported on research which showed that ‘women who work later in pregnancy will have smaller babies’. I’m sure working late in pregnancy would not be the only factor in the size of a baby.
    I’ve been frustrated with the way some special interest groups have been going with the emphasis on what the research says and applying it to patients. What works patient may not work for another and we can’t always explain why, in the case of these patients, the best research evidence does not work. I will continue to read research and let it inform my practice but a good assessment, clinical reasoning, sound knowledge base of physiology and anatomy and treating the patient as an individual will always be far more important than scratching about what the research says I should be doing.

  5. Congrats Tom, great article!

    I agree with all you said. Specially concerning the fact that, usually, they try to give a certain treatment to a medical diagnosis (PFPS). Usually there will be the need for a more thorough classification of the functional environment of the subjects, so they could be classificated more properly in order to really examine the efficiency of one method of treatment.

    We should check research, definitely yes, but we also should be able to criticize that same research. There’s a lot lacking in PT related research and what we actually have, specially concerning musculoskeletal and sports related physio, is very little.



  6. Hi Tom, Great points. I agree that research is very important and we can learn great things from research but there are very definite limitations of research. You pointed out that research often tests a certain treatment program (strengthening quads) for a particular diagnosis (PFP). We all know certain people with PFP have weak quads but others have overly strong quads compared to other muscles and the tested treatment protocol could aggravate the symptoms in those individuals. Everybody is so different in their muscle weaknesses, strengths, movement patterns, posture, range of motion etc because of their varied history, lifestyle, activities, habits, etc that research will always be very limited in this regard. We must remember that helping people with musculoskeletal injuries and pain and helping people improve performance should always be a balance of science and art and must be individualized to each person for it to be most effective. And like you said, what works works, regardless of whether research said it should or not.

    Thanks again!

  7. Sounds like yet another case of statistics being abused. Big difference between not having strong enough evidence to prove an effect, and proving that no effect exists (especially with the typically small numbers used in a lot of these studies). Otherwise, you could pick a small sample group and ‘prove’ that no effect exists for almost anything you liked.

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