Earlier this month, I was running a race and feeling spent. I'd drained my fuel tank in the first three quarters of the contest, and the late-race headwinds and hills weren't helping matters.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the finish. In the distance, I spotted another runner.
He was just a dot on the horizon, but I thought I might be able to catch him. I never quite managed to reel him in, but when I checked my watch after race, it showed that I'd picked up the pace in the last few miles.
So what gives? Was I just sandbagging until the end, or is there something else going on here?
Dr. Prescott prescribes
Although exercise physiology has traditionally focused on the hearts, lungs and muscles of athletes, there is another organ that plays a key role in athletic performance: the brain. And in recent years, research has begun to look at the mind's ability to help the body stave off fatigue.
In one study, British scientists had cyclists pedal as hard as they could for several miles on stationary bikes several times to establish the riders' top-effort levels. The researchers then had the cyclists race against an avatar, a figure on the screen of their stationary bikes who, they were told, was pedaling at the riders' best-effort levels.
But unbeknown to the riders, that avatar was actually moving about 1 percent faster than the riders ever had. And — you guessed it — the riders ended up keeping pace with their avatars and, in the process, exceeding their previous best performances.
Other researchers have replicated this competition effect in other experiments, with subjects consistently performing faster in “race” conditions than in isolated efforts. Interestingly, though, offering rewards such as money has shown no improvement in times.
Not surprisingly, the competition effect has its limits. In another study, scientists had cyclists try to keep pace with avatars who were going 2 percent faster than their previous bests. As before, the researchers deceived the subjects, telling them that the avatars were going at the riders' previous fastest pace. But after keeping up for about half the race, the subjects gave up. All told, they performed no better than previous bests, and some did worse.
So it seems that the brain can trick the body only so much. After all, it's one thing to will yourself into finishing a 5k. But it's another to imagine that willpower alone would carry us to Olympic-quality times.
Interestingly, deception seems to play a key role in the competition effect. Because when researchers told cyclists that the avatars were riding 1 percent faster than they ever had, the riders made no attempt to keep pace; they simply matched their own previous bests.
Which brings us back to your question: Why did you run faster at the end of your race? Because you thought you could catch the competition. As any coach will tell you, that belief in yourself made all the difference.
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF's senior vice president and general counsel.