By Jim Gerard
What limits how fast a person can run, swim or cycle? How high she can jump? How hard he can strike a tennis ball or throw a javelin?
For years, exercise physiologists pondering the elements of ultimate athletic performance believed that an athlete’s body (including his or her genes) sets the ceiling, and that pain and fatigue are the result of the limits of his cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.
That’s why two recent studies conducted by a team of researchers led by Kevin Thompson, head of sport and exercise science at Northumbrian University in England, plus a third U.K. study, stirred interest in exercise science circles. All three studies suggest that our minds play a role in fixing our limits—or allowing us to surpass them.
The aim of Thompson’s first study was to investigate whether it was possible to reduce the times of participants in a 4,000-meter cycling time trial (about 2.5 miles) using a stationary bike by deceiving the racers into believing they were competing against their personal best.
As Gina Kolata reported in The New York Times, “Each rider was shown two avatars. One represented the rider himself, moving along a virtual course at the rate he was actually pedaling...The other figure was moving at the pace of the cyclist’s own previous best effort—or so the cyclists were told.”
But the researchers fibbed. They had programmed the second computerized figure to ride faster than the cyclist ever had—using 2 percent more power (which translates into about a 1 percent increase in speed).
So although the cyclists believed they were keeping pace with their past time, they ended up shattering that personal best and increasing their speed by 1 percent—a seemingly insignificant figure, but one large enough to make the difference between finishing at the head of the pack and getting lost in the crowd.
A study by Jo Corbett, a senior lecturer in applied exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth in England, reaffirmed Thompson’s results. Corbett and his team contemplated the degree to which competition can affect an athlete’s speed, so he asked a group of cyclists to put the pedal to the metal on a stationary bike for 2,000 meters. Two avatars were projected on the screen, the first one representing the rider and the second a “competitor” who, they said, would be in the room with them, only hidden behind a screen.
The competitor, however, was fictitious—its avatar represented the cyclist moving at the pace of his personal best over 2,000 meters. The cyclists easily beat their best times, proving that whether the competitor existed or not didn’t matter—as long as the cyclists believed that he did.
Thompson and his team of researchers conducted a second study to test just how fast an athlete could go, even when deceived or amid competition. The results were mixed; they showed that the alleged presence of a competitor could disempower athletes as well as enhance their performance. One group was told that their “opponent”—again, a phantom—would be racing at a pace 2 percent or 5 percent faster than each cyclist’s best time. Their spirits seemed to flag from the start, and they managed only to equal their own best efforts. The second group was deceived. They were told they’d be riding against avatars at the pace of their own best effort, when in fact the avatar was moving 2 percent to 5 percent faster. That group kept up with the avatars moving 2 percent faster, but couldn’t catch the 5 percent-ers.
Thompson says that his results prove that “a small deception of the brain can enhance performance…Within limits [the cyclists couldn’t go 5 percent faster], if an athlete thinks a certain pace is possible, he or she can draw on an energy reserve that the brain usually holds in abeyance.”
What the Experts Have to Say
ACE Certified News asked some exercise-performance experts to explain how a trifling deception could do what genetics, conditioning and training couldn’t—help an athlete access previous untapped energy reserves to exceed his or her personal best.
Expert Motivational Tips
We asked our experts to suggest some tips you can use to motivate your clients. Note: ACE does not encourage trainers to push clients to the point beyond which they risk injury. Always use “deception” judiciously or risk eroding trust between you and your clients.
- Prepare your client to change his or her mental response to obstacles and provide positive “self-talk” during the event. “Say you’re training a distance runner whose muscles tightened up during previous races,” says Kauss. “Train him to ignore his sensory system should he feel that same pain during his next race. Instead of responding: ‘All my hard work has gone down the drain,’ he should remember to tell himself, ‘I’ve had this experience before, but I fought through it.’”
- “Tell your client that you want her to hold her breath for as long as possible, timing her while she does so,” suggests Kauss. “Stress that she should hold out as long as possible. Record, but do not show her the time. Then, guide her through some relaxation imagery for a few minutes. Ask her to repeat the breath-holding challenge, this time aiming to go longer than she already has. Tell her that you will give her a signal when she matches her first time, but that she can go longer if possible. Give her the signal at a time that is actually 102 percent of her first time. Chances are her second time will exceed her first.”
- Karageorghis suggests borrowing a technique from British high jump coach Ron Murray. “In the training session before a major championship, [Murray] would pretend to accurately measure the height of the bar to make his athletes believe that it was a centimeter or two higher than it actually was. The athlete would clear the bar with relative ease and go into the competition feeling really confident.”
- Kauss recommends that you remind your clients of times when they did exceed their expectations or accomplish things they didn’t think were possible. “Use life experience to get the limiting thoughts out of their minds."
Dr. David Kauss, sports psychologist and author of Mastering Your Inner Game (Human Kinetics, 2001), concedes that an athlete’s mental approach can help him make gains hitherto considered beyond his limits. “[The cyclists’ improvement] was not about confidence, the feeling that I’m going to beat the other guy,” he says. “It was about a belief system—how I think about myself. Some athletes give themselves more positive messages about their potential, and during performance they stop thinking about their limits and focus on the moment.”
Kauss believes that a shift in one’s belief system can help the weekend warrior improve by a much higher percentage than the Olympian, because the former most likely is far from his threshold, while the Olympian is always bumping up against his.
Dr. Costas Karageorghis, an associate professor in sport psychology at Brunel University, London, and author of Inside Sport Psychology (Human Kinetics, 2011), agrees that an athlete’s attitude can play a crucial role in his performance, “if he has absolute belief in his ability.”
A Different Perspective
Fine. But just how do traits such as confidence, which originate in the brain, coerce the body into exceeding its limits?
“The athlete’s brain is sending messages that allow him to push harder for longer and start burning lean muscle mass,” explains Kauss, “which doesn’t happen ordinarily.”
“My belief is that the minds of the successful cyclists perceived the situation differently,” says Dr. Jim Taylor, clinical associate professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver and author of Prime Sport: Triumph of the Athlete Mind says about the studies. “This prevented the survival mechanism, a residue of evolution that always holds something in reserve, from kicking in.”
While we don’t know the precise physiological mechanism by which the brain can override the body’s normal limitations, we do know that the body does have absolute limits—even during the most intense competition or despite the mental slight-of-hand deployed by the U.K. researchers.
Kauss argues that man’s ultimate performance ceiling is restricted by physics; gravity, for example, determines how high you can jump and how much force you can put on a joint before it breaks. Nonetheless, when asked if he could use those laws of physics to quantify the absolute ceiling of athletic performance, he replied, “I don’t know. We’ve already exceeded what anyone thought we were capable of 50 years ago.”
Corbett, J. et al. (2011). Influence of competition on performance and pacing during cycling exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, September 3, 2011, [Epub ahead of print]
Kolata, G. (2011). A little deception helps push athletes to the limit. The New York Times, September 19, 2011.
Northumbria University (2011). Pushing the limits of human performance. October 17, 2011.
Stone, M.R. et al. (2011). Effects of deception on exercise performance: Implications for determinants of fatigue in humans. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, August 19, 2011, [Epub ahead of print]
Jim Gerard is an author, journalist, playwright and stand-up comic. He has written for the New Republic, Travel & Leisure, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, Washington Post, Salon, Details, New York Observer, and many other magazines. For more information, visit his site at www.gangof60.com.