Dr Phil Hurst
- Written by Switch the Play Foundation
Have you ever used something that doesn't have any scientific evidence to say it actually works? That's exactly what happened to Dr Phil Hurst. He has been on a journey to understand why athletes take supplements, how dangerous this can be, and what the alternatives are.
The multi-billion pound sport supplement industry may not like the educated, if not cynical view of leading exercise physiologist Professor Ronald Maughan but as a branch of sports science, it’s opened a Pandora’s box for one former international athlete.
Basically, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is and, to use one of coaching’s great cliches, there’s no shortcut to success.
It’s a mantra Dr Phil Hurst knows well. During a short but successful career in athletics, in which he competed alongside the likes of Mo Farah and Bernard Lagat and won national 10,000m and 3,000m titles, Phil was no stranger to high achievement and the work it took to get there.
Whilst studying for his undergraduate degree, he sought a little helping hand (or wrist) from an unusual source, that kick started his career outside sport.
“I decided to buy a power balance band,” he says, sighting a little bracelet worn by the likes of Ian Poulter and Andrew Strauss that claimed to ‘improve balance, strength and flexibility.’
The only snag - there was little evidence to actually back any of that up.
Phil continues: “I wore it and nothing happened so why are these being sold?
“I did more research and came across the placebo effect and it sparked my desire. It has a huge influence on everything in sport.”
After completing a masters, Phil undertook a PhD at Canterbury Christ Church University looking at the placebo effect in sportspeople and its influence on their decision to use supplements.
His experience as an elite athlete is one of the key driving forces behind his research to date.
“Everything I do has to have an impact,” he explains. “I always have the question of ‘So what? Why is this important for athletes?’”
“Can you improve performance just from the belief you’re taking something?
“Imagine if you started educating athletes and asking about the effectiveness of their supplements and where the benefit actually comes from.”“Imagine if you started educating athletes and asking about the effectiveness of their supplements and where the benefit actually comes from.”
From legal ergogenic aids like beetroot juice, protein shakes and caffeine to forbidden substances like anabolic steroids, sometimes simply taking something you believe will enhance performance is likely to enhance performance, regardless of the science behind it.
Naturally in elite sport, illegal drugs cross the ethical and permitted boundaries but what if athletes were educated to consider everything they took, regardless of legality? How much of performance enhancement comes from the mind and can retuning attitudes towards nutrition reduce the risk of intention or unintentional doping?
“It stops the risk immediately of failing a drugs test,” Phil explains. “Whether it’s the Nike shoes you spend £300 on or the juice you drink, all of the evidence shows it helps performance and a lot comes from the belief you’re taking it.
“The way this fits in is to say to athletes, do you need to spend thousands of pounds on this technology when really it just comes back to your psychological state and that belief in yourself?”
Armed with this body of research, Phil’s next task is to put the science into practice. Namely influencing governing bodies to educate athletes.
Whilst no easy task, Phil’s background in athletics has helped open doors and provided a stronger position in which to practically implement his learning, including working with UK Athletics’ anti-doping policy and support team.
“It gives me more credibility,” he says. “If you don’t know the people to change the decisions, you’re aren’t going to change the decisions.
“If you consider anti-doping, it’s multi-faceted. It’s the social elements, psychological, physiological, all these things come together to influence what education should be delivered. The placebo effect is one part of that.
“[There’s] not much education around questioning athletes as to why they take substances in the first place. There is a huge gap needed to be filled in using the knowledge that still hasn’t been harnessed.
“Whether that’s from UKA or WADA to use it within their materials in educating athletes, the next step is getting organisations to use it.
“I want to push to athletes to make a more informed decision before taking something that can potentially be career changing and risk their health.”
However, deciphering academics texts is not the best way to bring about change, which is where initiatives like Play It Forward come in, helping to share research and best practice in an easy to understand format.
“What academics and myself are having to learn is that I have to write completely differently,” Phil continues. “If my mum can understand it, everyone else can.”
Teaching, researching and writing theses may not be directly comparable with the elite sport background Phil enjoyed but there are still plenty of transferrable skills.
The majority sportspeople are unable and unlikely to earn enough to turn their vocation into a full-time job. That doesn’t mean it lacks value.
“The hard work and drive transferred into my academics,” Phil explains.
“I wouldn’t do athletics if I didn’t enjoy it. That’s the same with my research.
“I found a topic I really enjoyed and that’s the reason I continue. I’d give that advice to young athletes and young academics going forward.”
Last updated December 2020.