There are arguably many ways that personal research could be done; I’ve tried to approach this from an exercise professional’s perspective. Hopefully, some or all of this information will be helpful in some way. You may want to skip over the sections that don’t apply to you. Please share the link!
Note: here’s a funky little infographic for download plus a search process checklist. Just sign in here
1. Don’t be a magpie!
2. Frame your question carefully.
3. Perform a stocktake.
4. What type of evidence?
Considering the type of evidence I’m interested in and the results from my stocktake, I should be able to generate a list of keywords to guide my search. My question – is cold water immersion well tolerated and does it improve performance? I need to identify the main concepts – cold – sports – performance + tolerance. I can grow and improve my keyword list by thinking laterally and considering possible synonyms and antonyms – ice, cryotherapy, hydrotherapy, fatigue, and inflammation. I can also include acronyms and abbreviations – CWI and DOMs. I now have a list to start my search. I’ll probably start with cold + sports + performance, but I have a list of alternates that I can use to refine and improve my search. If you are easily distracted like me, having a good keyword list can narrow your searches and remove that temptation to follow whatever pops up.
5. Identify the information sources that you trust.
Academic journals might be the preferred information source for researchers, but these are often inaccessible to practitioners. Given the information explosion, it is costly and impractical to be able to scan all of the relevant journals in our domain. There are numerous commercial databases available but these are costly.Free(ish) alternatives include Google Scholar, BASE, and Mendeley.
We often want to search for details on recommended guidelines, structured programmes, and specific exercises and these are more likely to be found in textbooks or as web-based information. Textbooks are becoming a forgotten resource for contemporary professionals, yet they remain a great resource for traditional and well-established information. Most are out of date by the time they appear on bookshelves, so even in our digital age textbooks are rarely cutting edge, but sometimes that’s enough.
Web information is something to approach with caution. I don’t use web-based information often, but if I do I’ll normally restrict my searches to trustworthy sites. For me, this means the corporate websites of official organisations (e.g. a Heart Foundation), government organisations (e.g. CDC, the Center for Disease Control) or recognised professional authorities (e.g ASCM or NSCA). These sites will usually have information and publications available for the general public and for professionals. This information should (normally) be well vetted, although these organisations often have a reputation for being relatively conservative, consensus-driven and slow-moving. The ACSM and NSCA have both been taken to task for not moving with contemporary exercise prescription principles, understanding, and practices. But I’m aware of those limitations when I read their guidelines. For example, New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation still promotes cool down as part of injury prevention. While cooling down after activity is a nice habit to promote, clearly any injury, damage or inflammation is not going to be positively influenced by post-exercise physical activity (Van Hooren & Peake, 2018). So cooling down for injury prevention remains a tough sell.
While I don’t search for information from mainstream news organisations (or their web sites) they occasionally identify useful information. Although the concept of objective journalism appears to be a thing of the past, I like to think exercise and health information is immune to political influences. I’m aware that news organisations like to sensationalise stories, but as ‘reputable’ organisations they usually provide a trail back to the original research. For example, my morning read alerted me to research showing that breakfast is not helpful for weight loss! So, I followed the research trail and it turns out it was a meta-analysis (a statistical analysis of the analysis from 12 previous studies ) that found a small difference (0.44 kg) in weight favouring participants who had skipped breakfast rather than follow the advice that a good breakfast prevented overeating!! Sorry, but less than 500 grams is not going to convince me to go hungry! (Sievert et al, 2019)
7. Be strategic in collecting information.
8. Filtering and validating the information.
- Who wrote it?: Is the author clearly identified and named? Are their qualifications and the organisation that they represent included? Is the organisation reputable? Is the author’s name familiar? Is their contact information listed? Have they published on this topic before?
- What’s the level of the information? Is the information pitched at the level that you’re seeking? You want information that is going to have practical significance. Highly specialised, technical, and theoretical information will probably be of limited use, just as very simplistic information intended for non-professionals may also have minimal value.
- Is it up to date? Is it dated with a suitably recent publication date? Does the information refer to current understanding of the topic?
- Is the information accurate? Separating ‘drivel’ from ‘bona fide’ information can be a challenge. Look at the style of writing. Does it come across as factual or opinion-based? Does the writing refer to what is already known on the topic and acknowledge different interpretations? Does it reference the most recent research on the topic? Do the arguments presented appear to be based on good evidence and use solid logic? Does the writer’s point of view appear objective or is there bias and emotional language? Is a reference list provided? Are key references acknowledged? Does the information rely on being an authority rather than presenting credible evidence and arguments? Authority information will generally suggest that the information is correct because the writer is an authority, or it’s based on celebrity endorsement – those sorts of appeals to authority are often not knowledge-based.
- How good is the research? If this is research-based information I want to check the research question, the methods and the organisation of the research. If it’s an intervention (exercise/training) I will glance at the research design, the number, and type of participants. I’ll be honest, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the statistical analysis but I will take more notice of raw data or group means. I will look at baseline measures and try to gauge the magnitude of any reported changes. I will take note of significance, but I’m more interested in the mean change observed and individual variability of changes. As an exercise professional, I’m always interested in individual variability because that we deal with individuals (not populations) on a daily basis. So I’ll be looking to see if there appear to be high responders and low responders. I will then normally jump to the discussion and the authors’ explanations for what they have observed or think has happened. In particular, I’m interested in the logic of their arguments and whether they have inferred causation where there may only be an association. I’ll put my 10th man hat on for a moment and take an adversarial approach to the study, trying to find reasons to refute the authors’ arguments. I’ll make comparisons with what I already know and think. I’ll then try (really hard) to put all of my biases and beliefs aside and ask – is this something that I should be including in my practice? Is this likely to make a difference for my clients? Am I simply going to be using my clients as personal lab rats to try out something that MIGHT work? An acid test for me is how does this stand up to scrutiny when the first principles of exercise (overload, progression, etc) are considered? I also need to ask ‘how will this make the people that I work with, feel?
- Is it well presented? Is the information well written with excellent grammar and a consistent style? Is there any advertising or endorsement of products or services? (I’m out if there is!) Is the information trying to ‘funnel’ you towards buying, joining or subscribing? (I’m running away screaming now!)
9. Contemplate, cross-check and network.
10. Plan how to make use of your information.
11. Implement and evaluate.
In summary, although researching new information may seem like an intimidating, time-consuming and complex process, it’s possible to make it simple, methodical and fulfilling. An exercise professional dealing with new information is reliant on their explicit (foundation knowledge) and tacit (understanding based on ongoing experiences) knowledge. As exercise professionals, we should have a natural curiosity and inquisitiveness about our practice if we want to remain current. When time permits, that spirit of inquiry should lead to personal research which could take different forms. Regardless of the process adopted, exercise professionals need to develop and utilise good information filters. These will help encourage skepticism, critical thought and encourage us to take note of apparent discrepancies. Sharing ideas with your network of professional contacts before making changes to your practice is recommended – your friends and colleagues are a great final test!
Note: here’s a funky little infographic for download plus a search process checklist. Just sign in here
- Lawson, H.A. (1984) Problem-Setting for Physical Education and Sport. Quest 36; 48-60.
- MacDonald, W. B. (Academic Skills Centre), Seel, J. (Library, both University of Toronto) Research Using the Internet https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/researching/research-using-internet/ (Accessed 7 Feb 2019)
- Sievert, K., Hussain, S.M., Page, M.J. et al (2019) Effect of breakfast on weight and energy intake: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ 364:l42
- Van Hooren, B. & Peake, J.M.(2018) Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response. Sports Med 48(7): 1575 -1595.
- Zandvoort, C.S., de Zwart, J.R., van Keeken, B.L. et al (2018) A customised cold-water immersion protocol favours one- size-fits-all protocols in improving acute performance recovery, European Journal of Sport Science, 18:1, 54-61.