A new study shows how we can manipulate our minds to enable better performance.
One of the most interesting and mysterious concepts in running is that of the 100 percent effort. This concept comes into play in races, time trials, and certain key workouts, where the goal is to cover a set distance in the least time possible. Executing this objective requires a 100 percent effort. But in distance running a 100 percent effort is different than it is in a short sprint. In a short sprint you can cover the designated distance in the least time possible by running as fast as you can from the first stride. But in a distance event you must hold yourself back—that is, pace yourself—to finish in minimum time. This requirement makes it difficult to judge whether a 100 percent effort has truly been given.
There is growing evidence from exercise science that runners and other endurance athletes do not give out true 100 percent efforts in races and time trials. For whatever reason—be it a physiological mechanism of self-protection or a psychological resistance to undue suffering—athletes hold back a little more than is necessary and thus finish each distance event with a small reserve capacity. The latest evidence comes from an interesting study out of England’s Northumbria University that involved cyclists.
Nine trained cyclists completed simulated 4K time trials on stationary bikes on four separate occasions. The first time trial was a practice session. The second was a baseline trial that yielded a performance standard for each cyclist that was then used in the last two time trials. In each of these last two time trials, each cyclist was made to race against a computer avatar that represented his baseline performance. However, in one of these trials, that baseline performance was surreptitiously boosted by 2 percent. Thus, in one of the last two trials the cyclists merely had to beat their true baseline performance. But in the other, unbeknownst to them, they had to beat an improved version of their past selves representing 102 percent of their previous capacity.
You know where this is going. In the time trial involving accurate feedback information, the nine cyclists completed the 4K race 0.5 to 5.4 seconds faster than in the baseline trial. But when they competed against their augmented baseline performance, they bested that performance by a much greater margin: between 2.1 and 10.1 seconds. The times the cyclists achieved in this deceived state were also better—by 1.5 to 5.4 seconds—than the times they achieved when racing with accurate information.
What’s so interesting about this study is that the cyclists were trying to give out 100 percent efforts in all three of these time trials. But their performance when racing against 102 percent of their previously demonstrated capacity revealed that they were not really going all out when time trialing purely by feel or racing against their true baseline performance.
The authors of this study, which was published in the August 2011 edition of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, concluded, “The provision of surreptitiously augmented feedback derived from a previous performance reduces time taken for cyclists to accomplish a time trial of known duration. This suggests that cyclists operate with a metabolic reserve even during maximal time trials and that this reserve can be accessed following deception.”
This statement is true enough, but I think it misses the mark a bit. Past research has demonstrated that deception is not required to motivate athletes to dig deeper into their reserves and perform better. Competition against other athletes will also do the trick. If the cyclists who participated in this study had simply been asked to race against other cyclists who had outperformed them by 2 percent in their own baseline time trials, similar improvements would have been observed. It’s nothing more than the well-known competition effect.
What are the practical implications of these findings? I believe they provide further support for the practice of competing against oneself in training. It’s a good idea to perform certain benchmark workouts that you repeat often throughout the process of training for an event. Each time you repeat the session, you try to better your performance from the last time. Naturally, the gains in fitness that you earn through training will help you improve your performance in these sessions over time. But these gains won’t be sufficient to allow you to improve every time; you will also be required to try harder and harder as the weeks go by. These benchmark workouts will thus train you to dig deeper into your reserves as your big race draws closer. Over time you may gain an extra 2 percent in performance beyond what any physiological changes can explain—without fooling yourself.