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The pack of cyclists pedals through Tuscany's countryside during the 9th stage of the Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy cycling race, from Sansepolcro to Florence, on May 12, 2013.The Associated Press

When forecasting fitness trends for a new year, it’s hard not to think of Clubber Lang’s ringside interview before his championship tussle with Rocky Balboa.

“Prediction?” Lang snarls in response to a reporter’s question.

Yes, Clubber. A prediction.


One year, it’s boot camps; another year it’s deep-tissue massage; another year it’s Zumba. One way or another, the hottest new fitness trends usually involve creative new ways of suffering – and of somehow convincing people to enjoy the ordeal, at least until the next trend comes along. It’s a safe bet that 2019’s top fitness stories will follow a similar pattern.

But beyond the trendy headlines, there will be other, more subtle topics rippling through the fitness world. As scientists continue to search for new clues about how to get more fit and perform better, here are four areas of controversy we’ll hear more about in 2019.

The new sports psychology

Sports psychology has been around for more than a century: an 1898 study on why cyclists ride faster when competing with others is often cited as the field’s starting point. But its advice over the years has sometimes been difficult to distinguish from the enthusiastic but light-on-science slogans of the motivational self-help literature.

That’s changing, though, with growing interest in rigorous studies of how our minds can influence performance. Perfectionists, it turns out, get more shin splints; your score on a questionnaire about emotional intelligence can help predict your half-marathon time. Findings like this will help sports psychologists give better and more personalized advice; but more importantly, they’ll help convince skeptics that the mental game matters.

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Eliud Kipchoge, centre, in his Nike Vaporfly 4% running shoes with fellow runners at the Tiergarten in Berlin, on Sept. 13, 2018.MUSTAFAH ABDULAZIZ/The New York Times News Service


In September, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge set a new marathon world record of 2:01:39, sparking a wave of excitement about the possibility of a sub-two-hour marathon. But to some observers, Kipchoge’s performance came with an asterisk, because he wore a new Nike shoe with a stiff carbon-fibre plate embedded in a thick foam midsole. Tests have shown that the shoe reduces energy consumption while running by an average of 4 per cent – so was his record merely a triumph of shoe technology?

Similar debates have played out elsewhere. Chris Froome attributed his victorious breakaway in cycling’s Giro d’Italia to a secret new sports drink his team called “beta fuel.” Skiers at the Winter Olympics used special headphones to apply electric brain stimulation to supposedly enhance skill acquisition. Debates about the appropriate role of technology in sport aren’t new, but as the pace of progress accelerates, defining “fair” will take on greater urgency.

Handling heat

In laboratories around the world, sports scientists are grappling with a pressing question: How do you run a fast marathon in temperatures that could top 30 C? It’s now clear that the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in the midst of Tokyo’s sweltering summer, will be among the hottest on record, and that has sparked a surge of heat-related athletic research.

It’s not just Tokyo, though. The 2022 World Cup is slated for Qatar. And with rising global temperatures, the combination of hard exercise and extremely hot days will become increasingly common – so this is one area of elite sports research that we’ll all benefit from.

Runner’s not-so-high

Yes, Ross Rebagliati now sells legal pot for “the athlete in all of us.” But the bigger fitness-related cannabis story is the emergence of cannabidiol (better known as CBD) oil, a cannabis derivative that promises some of the same benefits without the high, as an athletic recovery aid. One recent analysis predicted that the market for hemp-derived CBD could hit US$22-billion by 2022, eclipsing the rest of the pot market.

There’s just one thing missing from the picture: scientific backing for the claims of pain relief, reduced inflammation, better sleep, and so on. Given the amount of money at stake, expect to see a deluge of CBD-related athletic studies – some of them, hopefully, not funded by the pot industry.

Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.

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