Science proves we’re hard-wired to push harder in competition.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Competitive runners often talk about “running their own race.” What they mean is that they intend to rely on their own perception of effort to pace themselves through an upcoming race instead of allowing other runners to dictate their pace, for example by hanging on to the leader as long as possible.
Every runner needs to run his or her own race to a certain extent. In experienced runners, perception of effort is the single best guide to the optimal pace for any given race. However, perception of effort should not be relied on to the exclusion of an outward-looking competitive focus. That’s because awareness of other runners in a race actually increases one’s tolerance for suffering, enabling one to cover the race distance faster.
Suppose I brought you to a track and asked you to warm up and then run a 10K solo time trial (25 laps) around it, without wearing a watch or receiving split times. In this scenario, you would be forced to rely on your feel for appropriate pacing to complete those 25 laps in the minimum possible time. More specifically, you would find a rhythm at a steady pace that would cause your perceived effort to start at a moderate level and increase gradually until you reached the maximum level of suffering you felt you could tolerate just as you crossed the finish line.
Now suppose I brought you back to the same track a few days later and asked you to repeat the time trial, again without time information. However, on this occasion, you would race against five other runners of roughly equal ability. It is almost certain that you would run a faster time than you had a few days earlier. Why? Because the presence of the other runners would activate social instincts that would increase your maximum suffering tolerance. Even though you would still be running by feel, primarily, those other runners would push and pull you so that, after only 20 laps, perhaps, you would be suffering as much as you had been in the last lap of your solo time trial—because you would be running faster. But, whereas you were certain that this amount of suffering was the most you could bear when running alone, in the group race you would shoot right past that suffering level over the final five laps and hit the finish line at a significantly higher level of perceived effort—and with a significantly faster time.
Don’t believe it? Too bad! It’s a proven fact. In 1968, a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley had a bunch of college students individually complete high-intensity stationary bike rides to exhaustion. In other words, they were required to sustain a fixed power output level as long as possible, quitting only when they felt they could not complete a single additional pedal stroke at that wattage. Then the researcher used the results to match up these students in pairs of roughly equal ability. The test was repeated exactly as it had been done the first time, except each subject was in the presence of another. Even though the students were not explicitly told to compete against their partner to see who could last the longest at the same power level, the students did just that and lasted a full 20 percent longer, on average, than when they had done exactly the same test alone.
There are those runners who believe they can run as hard alone as they can against others. These runners are fooling themselves. Those social instincts that hard-wire us to tolerate more suffering in competition than alone cannot be fooled. It is impossible to run as hard solo as you would in a race by merely pretending you’re in a race. By the same token, you don’t want to go into any race with a mindset of pretending it’s not a race—that is, a mindset of completely “running your own race”.
Let those other runners influence you. Let them push you and pull you. Go ahead and unleash your competitive instincts so that you’re able to tolerate greater suffering and reach the finish line faster.
Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.