critical thinking

Don’t Get Fooled: Critical Thinking Skills for Athletes 


By Cliff Pittman,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach,
CTS Coaching Development Director

In a recent column for Trailrunner Magazine, I delved deep into the risks that pseudoscience creates for athletes and coaches. Among the takeaways from that column was the idea that we all benefit from improving our critical thinking skills. The world today is full of misinformed opinions masquerading as expertise, whether the result of innocent naivete or malicious intent. In our corner of the world, this means athletes struggle to discern the validity of claims made by sports scientists, coaches, supplement companies, and gear manufacturers. 

Skepticism vs. Cynicism

To critically evaluate claims, developing strong critical thinking skills and a skeptical mindset is essential. There is a big difference between being skeptical and cynical. Being skeptical means having a questioning and doubting mindset towards claims, beliefs, or information until sufficient evidence is provided to support or refute them. Skeptics approach things with a critical and rational eye, seeking evidence and reasoning to form their conclusions. They are open to changing their views based on new evidence and are not easily swayed by unsubstantiated claims. Cynicism, on the other hand, involves a more negative and distrustful outlook towards others’ motivations or actions. While your family and friends may find this skeptical mindset annoying at times, this approach when applied appropriately protects you from being misled and helps you differentiate between factual information and pseudoscientific claims. 

Evaluating Claims

Here are some steps to evaluate claims through a critical lens:

  1. Consider Source Reliability:

    Assess the credentials, expertise, and reputation of the source. Look for academic qualifications, affiliations with reputable institutions, and a track record of publishing peer-reviewed research. For example, trusting a Registered Dietitian for nutritional advice rather than anecdotal experiences from someone who found something that worked for them. Additionally, there can often be a low barrier to entry in endurance coaching. In today’s digital age, obtaining an online certification and updating one’s Instagram bio allows almost anyone to position themselves as an advisor to athletes. However, when seeking professional guidance, it’s essential to inquire about their education and certifications to ensure complete confidence in their qualifications.

  2. Look for Consensus Among Experts:

    In the scientific community, differing opinions can arise due to beliefs or financial interests. When reading research, check for potential conflicting interests from authors, like someone with a major stake in a Keto company promoting the performance superpowers of a low-carb, high-fat approach to nutrition. More credibility lies in the collective scientific community agreeing upon training methods or practices rather than individual opinions.

  3. Examine Research and Evidence:

    Differentiate between study types and designs. Look for studies with larger sample sizes, control groups, and statistical analysis, particularly those in human populations. Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses carry more weight than Observational Studies. Prioritize more rigorous methods to think critically about differing results in the same field.

  4. Watch for Logical Fallacies:

    Be cautious of false causality, appeals to authority, and cherry-picked data. False causality frequently arises in the nutrition supplement space when athletes begin a new supplement regimen and observe performance improvements. While they may solely credit the positive outcome to the new supplement, it’s essential to consider other contributing factors. Improved environmental conditions, enhanced fitness from training, reduced life stress, or better overall eating and sleeping habits might also be influencing the observed results. Evaluating these various elements is crucial for accurate conclusions about the supplement’s actual impact. Generally, we must beware of marketing claims offering a single solution for various problems, often disguised as a “cure-all” solution.

Reputable Resources

Fortunately, there is a sea of information available today to access information and critically evaluate claims. To prioritize evidence-based training, utilize the following resources to complete your tool kit:

  1. Peer-Reviewed Journals: Access scientific journals in sports science, exercise physiology, and related fields. These studies undergo rigorous evaluation by experts in the field, providing reliable information.
  2. Accredited Institutions and Organizations: Rely on resources from national governing bodies and reputable institutions that prioritize evidence-based approaches.
  3. Trusted Experts and Coaches: The best coaches and experts stay up to date on the latest science and continually evolve their craft. Look for coaches who are doing this at the highest level, who they surround themselves with, what their education and qualifications are, and who has mentored them. Effective coaches rely on scientific principles rather than solely implementing methods that have worked for them in their personal training and racing experiences.


While evidence-based training serves as a solid foundation, we must acknowledge individuality. No two athletes are alike, and training needs to be tailored to specific goals, needs, and circumstances. As coaches, that’s why we incorporate personal feedback, test out new and promising ideas, and adapt training based on individual observations.

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As athletes and coaches, we now possess a powerful toolkit to navigate the intricate world of pseudoscience and embrace evidence-based training. By developing strong critical thinking skills and skepticism, we can protect ourselves from misleading claims and make informed decisions rooted in scientific research. After all, scientific inquiry is the gold standard for acquiring knowledge, offering a reliable system to distinguish fact from fiction.

In today’s world of instant gratification, it’s important to resist the allure of pseudoscience and embrace the long-term process of building fitness through consistent effort. By incorporating evidence-based practices and critical thinking into training, you’ll pave the way for success, enhance athletic performance, and protect yourself from the snake oil of the modern era.

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Comments 1

  1. Better be incredibly vigilant with what science and how the “research” is funded, a healthy dose of caution needs to be the base of learning most “science” we see today is Grant funded and grant funded tends to mean objectives instead of completely unbiased information

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