Sports Science Update: Numbers Do And Don’t Lie

A new study demonstrates the psychological importance of performance feedback.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

It was once believed that endurance racing performance was determined completely by physiological factors. The body did what the body could do; the mind was just along for the ride. But within the past decade, an avalanche of research has convincingly demonstrated that psychological factors have a huge influence on endurance racing outcomes.

The latest addition to this body of research is an intriguing study performed by Qatari scientists. The purpose of the study was to determine the effects of different sorts of performance feedback on time trial performance in trained cyclists. Seven subjects performed simulated 10-mile time trials on stationary bikes. They were given no feedback information in one trial, accurate feedback on time elapsed and distance covered in a second trial, inaccurate feedback information that told them they were going 5 percent slower than they really were in a third trial, and 5 percent “positive” feedback information in a fourth trial. The actual order of the four trials was random.

Fascinatingly, the cyclists recorded the fastest completion time in the trial in which they received accurate feedback information. They were very slightly slower in false positive trial. Their times were significantly slower in the false negative trial, and slowest, by a slight margin, in the blind trial.

Obviously, the cyclists had the same physiological capabilities in all four trials. Their varied performance can only be explained by psychological factors related to performance feedback information. It takes nothing more than a commonsense understanding of human psychology to supply the specific explanation for these findings.

First, endurance racing performance is influenced by motivation, and motivation is influenced by external feedback. It is a well-proven fact that athletes perform significantly better when competing against others or actively measuring their performance than they do when simply trying as hard as they can without an external measuring stick.

Second, motivation is also influenced by perceived competency. Good results are more motivating than poor results. If you’ve raced enough, you’ve probably had the experience of getting a surprisingly good split in the middle of a race and found that its effect was to motivate you to finish stronger. And you’ve probably had the opposite experience as well. Obviously, there are physical reasons why we get surprisingly good or unexpectedly disappointing splits in the middle of races. If you get a surprisingly good split, you are clearly physically “on” that day, and when the opposite happens, you’re already “off”. But these physical states are psychologically compounded by encouraging performance feedback. When you set a huge PR on a good day, it’s not only because you’re physically stronger than ever, but also because your splits motivate you to make hay while the sun shines.

In this Qatari study, cyclists were slowest when they lacked any sort of feedback information with which to push themselves to a higher level of performance. They were ever so slightly faster when given false negative feedback that made them think they were having an off day. On the one hand, the availability of feedback motivated them to push harder, but the disappointing numbers negated most of the potential boost that time-and-distance data could have given them.

The cyclists performed significantly better when given false positive feedback that convinced them they were really on. But they performed even better still when they were given accurate feedback information. This enabled them to exploit the power of self-competition in the way trained cyclists are accustomed to doing. It’s interesting that false positive feedback was not able to fool the cyclists into believing that they had more physiological wherewithal than they actually did. This finding shows the limits of the psychological element. No amount of motivation can enable you to exceed your hard physiological limits. You  have to earn the performance-enhancing psychological effect of surprisingly good performance feedback.

The lesson of this study is plain. Use performance feedback to motivate yourself to push harder in training and races. And set yourself up to receive the most encouraging numbers possible in the workouts and races that matter most. You can’t trick yourself with false positives, but you can, for example, do your most important workouts in a well-rested state that will allow you to put up better early splits than normal, which in turn will motivate you to perform even better through the remainder of the session.

To learn more about the role of the mind in running, check out Matt’s book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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