We’ve all probably been there at some point in our life…at the end of the long race, the last rep of the hard squat session, the gruelling extra-time sports game or the last round of the big fight. Our legs feel like jelly, our abs ache and we feel like we’ve just gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. There are times during exercise when we feel like our body is so fatigued and that we couldn’t possibly push any harder. Did you ever wonder why some competitors or indeed professional sportsmen just seem to be able to keep working forever while the rest of us seem to reach our limits and cannot beat them? Obviously superior genetics and conditioning play a huge part but how much of it is psychological and is it possible to trick ourselves into performing better purely through manipulation of the mind? An interesting study by Stone et al (1) published this month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise examined the effects of deception on exercise performance.
The study involved 9 trained male cyclists undertaking 4 separate bouts of a 4000m time trial. The second trial was used as a baseline measure after an initial familiarisation run. In the third and fourth time trial, participants were shown an avatar which they were told represented their baseline performance in the second time trial. Whilst this information was correct for the third trial, the power output in the fourth trial was actually set at 102% of the participants’ relative baseline performance, acting as a deception condition. In addition to time to completion, respiratory exchange ratios and oxygen uptake were also measured.
Significant differences in time to completion were noted with the time for the third trial being faster than the baseline and the time for the deception condition being even faster still. The improvement between the deception and accurate avatar times were attributable to an increased anaerobic contribution to power output at 90% of the total distance.
The authors concluded that surreptitiously augmented feedback can improve time trial performance in trained cyclists. The study suggests that cyclists may operate a metabolic reserve which may be accessible through deception even during maximal time trials.
A similar study published in the same journal (2) examined the influence of competition during cycling. This study involved the participants undertaking three familiarisation time trials (2000m) before an additional time trial on a Velotron cycle ergometer. Particpants were then shown a computerised image to compete against in head-to-head competition. They were told this computerised image represented a fellow participant but in reality the image represented their best time from the four previous time-trials.
The authors found that performance in the head-head races was significantly higher than the other time-trials with the most noticeable differences seen from 1000m to the end of the trial.
The authors concluded that head-to-head competition can encourage individuals to their improve performance via an aerobic energy yield.
Both these studies add weight to the notion that psychology can play a huge part in sporting performance but it was interesting to see that both results were consistent with the concept of a physiological reserve that can be accessed through perceived competition. Whilst study sizes were relatively small in both studies and only involved cycling, the improvements seen were significant and it does raise the question as to how we can incorporate these findings to improve our performance in a range of other sports. Those of us who have easy access to training partners or are involved in team sports could adapt our sessions to include more head-to-head elements and improve competition. If you’re involved in weight training and can find someone with similar stats to yourself then it may be worthwhile to schedule a training session with that partner for when you make your next personal best attempts.
Although the results of the studies were not too surprising considering we will all have witnessed how people can seem to “up their game” when it comes to important competition, we hope that future research may provide more solid guidelines on how we can relate this to our own training to improve performance. For the meantime, the next time you’re exercising and feel you have reached your absolute limit, remember these studies and see if you can push your limits by tapping into that physiological reserve.
If you do struggle to find a partner or competition to motivate you then you may want to try one of the following recommended pre-workout products to aid your training:
Ultima (for those who prefer to avoid stimulant products)
Author: Hassan Muzaffar
1. Effects of deception on exercise performance: implications for determinants of fatigue in humans (2012) Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Mar;44(3):534-41.
2. Influence of competition on performance and pacing during cycling exercise. (2012) Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Mar;44(3):509-15.
© 2012, Hassan Muzaffar. All rights reserved.