A few years ago, researchers in Taiwan recruited volunteers for what they were told was health-related product testing. Their first task was to take a pill and rate its texture and color; half were told it was a multivitamin, while the other half were told it was a placebo (which it was). During the next tests, the groups acted dramatically differently. When asked to test a pedometer, those who thought they'd taken a vitamin were more likely to walk a shorter route; at lunch, they chose less healthy food. In a survey, they expressed greater feelings of invulnerability and less desire to exercise.
What does this have to do with running? Racing your best demands that you coordinate countless details of training and lifestyle, such as long runs, intervals, sleep and nutrition, that contribute to your performance. This study illustrates a phenomenon known as the "licensing effect": doing something you believe will help you (like taking a vitamin) will subconsciously encourage you to slack off on other ways of achieving the same goal (like eating well). You must distinguish between the factors that matter for your fitness, and the ones you can ignore, because you're always making trade-offs. Here are three to watch out for:
The shortcut: reactive recovery
It's easy to take painkillers to block training-related aches, but this habit doesn't address the muscle weaknesses that may be causing your pain. Other recovery tools like compression garments and ice baths may have benefits, but they're still just short-term.
The better way: active prevention
It's hard to think about injury prevention when you're healthy, but this is when it matters most. At least twice a week, spend 10 to 15 minutes working on balance, dynamic flexibility using form drills, and strength in key areas like hips, ankles, and feet. It takes about as long as an ice bath, and will do more to keep you healthy.
The shortcut: training supplements
In theory, taking a multivitamin or a dietary supplement targeted at athletes as a form of "insurance" makes sense—after all, no one eats perfectly all the time. But there's scant evidence that these supplements actually boost health or performance, and some studies have found that large doses of antioxidant supplements like vitamin C can interfere with muscle recovery and endurance gains during training.
The better way: healthy eating
The best way to get key micronutrients is from whole foods. Yes, it takes planning to make sure you have healthy options like vegetables, fruit, and fish available day after day, meal after meal. You'll never be perfect, but if you don't give yourself the excuse, "It's okay, I took vitamins this morning," you're more likely to get closer to your dietary goals.
The shortcut: energy boosters
There's no doubt that caffeine is an effective performance-enhancer, not to mention an essential part of day-to-day life for many runners. But there's a subtle distinction to bear in mind: Caffeine helps to mask the feeling of fatigue, but it doesn't actually make you any more rested.
The better way: sleep
While you're asleep, your body is recovering from the day's training, repairing damage, and recharging energy stores. It's fine to start your day with a cup of coffee, and even to drink more before a workout or race. But if you're not also getting enough sleep (most adults need seven to nine hours a night) you'll struggle to make consistent, long-term gains in fitness.