Skip to main content

Little Lies Push an Athlete’s Limits

How far can you run or bike? For athletes, a little benign deception and positive thinking can trump body science.
Marianne Vos wins the 2012 Ronde van Drenthe in the Netherlands. (Photo: anMarton/Flickr)

Marianne Vos wins the 2012 Ronde van Drenthe in the Netherlands. (Photo: anMarton/Flickr)

I signed up for the bike race to challenge myself. Overworked and stressed from planning my upcoming wedding, training for my first race with my fiancé and friends seemed like a welcome relief from the endless grind of emails and phone calls. I trained all summer, heading out each weekend to chase miles on the rural byways near my home. I experimented with how fast to pedal and what to eat on my ride. By the time the day of the race dawned, hot and humid, I felt reasonably confident of my abilities.

The ride promptly kicked my butt.

The course of the century bike race was a 100-mile odyssey through the hills of rural Virginia, passing through some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefields and (I have to confess this was far more of a selling point than it should have been) a local winery. I coasted easily through the first 50 miles and began to envision myself crossing the finish line. But as the sun crept higher and the mercury continued its inexorable rise, I rapidly began to tire.

More recently, sports psychologists realized that hidden within this model was an unusual way to coax more speed out of athletes.

Somewhere around mile 72, I had pulled off the road to refill my water bottle and catch my breath. The finish line, which had seemed within my grasp little more than an hour before, now seemed impossibly distant. A group of riders passed me, and shouted out a few words of encouragement as they flew by. “You can do it! The next rest stop is just three or four miles away.”

I wanted to cry—in fact, I might have, if I had the energy and the water to spare for tears. Three or four miles? I didn’t feel that I could make it even three-tenths of a mile. They may as well have asked me to ride to Mars.

To a distance cyclist like myself, three or four miles isn’t that far. I can usually ride that in well under 15 minutes—less, if the wind is at my back. Pile on the fatigue of heat, exertion, and dehydration, however, and that same distance becomes agonizingly far. Performing well as an athlete means subverting this shifting perception of time and effort.

ANY ATHLETE WILL TELL you that one of the biggest issues to tackle is pacing. Start off too fast, and you won’t have enough energy to finish. But go too slow and you won’t finish first. Balancing them is no easy feat. When sports psychologist Timothy Noakes, now at the University of Cape Town, first began addressing the issue of pacing with athletes, he told them that the issue was all in the muscles. As soon as your muscles burned through a readily available fuel known as glycogen and a chemical known as lactic acid builds up, you would be unable to continue exercising. On paper, that sounded good, but Noakes couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to the story.

“If the muscles are controlled by lactic acid, then you should start a race at the same pace no matter if you’re running 100 meters or 100 miles,” Noakes says. Since you don’t, he knew that something else had to be involved.

As an ultra-marathon runner himself, Noakes knew that completely running out of energy is catastrophic for athletic performance. You can’t go on. He realized that the brain had to be playing a role, judging how far an athlete needed to go and setting the pace based on how much energy was available and how much stress the body was under. The brain constantly tinkered with pace to help maintain homeostasis and make sure the body had adequate fuel reserves.

This explained why sprinters typically ran faster than marathon runners. Since their races were shorter, they could expend all of their energy in one large burst, whereas distance runners had to conserve their fuel to last over several hours. Noakes published this Central Governor Model in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 1997. More recently, sports psychologists realized that hidden within this model was an unusual way to coax more speed out of athletes.

To make sure we have an energy reserve, even at the end of a race, the brain’s “central governor” keeps us from racing as fast as we are truly able. University of Northumbria researchers Kevin Thompson and Mark Stone (now at the University of Canberra and Bucks New University, respectively) thought they might be able to trick athletes into racing faster than they thought they could.

“We wanted to see if we could figure out the difference between what we think we can do and what we actually do,” Stone says.

They brought a group of experienced cyclists into the lab and had them ride as fast as they could on an exercise bike for four kilometers (2.5 miles). Thompson and Stone recorded the cyclists’ performances, and then they brought the athletes back into the lab for a second test. The cyclists were told that their job was to race themselves, and a screen mounted on the lab bike had two avatars: one that represented the cyclist in the current race and one that represented them riding their fastest in the previous trials. The researchers, however, had a trick. Whereas half of the cyclists were actually racing themselves, the other half were racing an avatar that had a power output that was two percent higher than in their previous trials.

The cyclists racing themselves were able to keep up, just as expected. More interestingly, the cyclists racing the deceptive avatars were also able to keep up, Thompson and Stone reported in a 2012 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Noakes says that altering an athlete’s perception of how fast they think they’re able to race provides a tangible way to potentially increase their performance. You can override the brain’s central governor simply by tricking it.

Getting an athlete to do so consciously is much trickier. Although it can be done—athlete collapses during marathons aren’t unheard of—Thompson and Stone were unable to do so in the lab. When they brought another group of cyclists into the lab and told them they would be racing an avatar that had a two percent higher power output, the athletes couldn’t keep up. (These results have not yet been published.)

REN-JAY SHEI, AN EXERCISE physiology Ph.D. student at Indiana University, was working on his master’s thesis when he read about the work of Noakes, Thompson, and Stone. He developed a variant of Thompson and Stone’s studies, in which Shei started with their original protocol. He brought cyclists into the lab, had them race, and then conducted the deception speed study. As expected, nearly all of the cyclists passed. But Shei didn’t stop there. He brought the cyclists back to the lab for a third time, where he exposed his previous deception, and then had them race the super speedy avatar for a second time. Again, they passed.

“This shows how the brain plays an important role not only in how you determine your pace during exercise but also how you choose your pace at the beginning,” Shei says.

To Shei, this not only speaks to the power of perception, but also the power of experience. Once we’ve done something for the first time, it gets easier to do it again. “We know we can do it because we’ve done it before. It’s a very powerful thought,” Shei says.

You can also see it in an athlete’s performance at the Olympic games. “People are generally more successful at their second Olympic games, because they know what it’s going to be like,” Thompson says.

A good coach knows how to use these tiny deceptions to get more speed out of their athletes without eroding the trust that exists between the pair, Noakes says. For those of us armed only with an app on our cell phones, however, the deception issue becomes difficult, if not impossible. Shei, who coaches cyclists on the side, says that if I can’t alter my perception of speed, I could alter my perception of fatigue. A 2013 study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that athletes who used motivational self-talk (“I can do this.”) were able to cycle 18 percent longer than those who didn’t.

“There’s a lot of power in positive self-talk and encouraging yourself onwards,” Noakes says. “Treat fatigue as you would any other emotion. It’s just a feeling, and you don’t always have to listen to it.”

Of course, even the most effusive positive self-talk can only take you so far. The soaring heat and humidity meant that I narrowly avoided complete collapse at the mile 75 rest stop. No amount of energy chews and rehydration could save me. I was completely finished. Still, I had inadvertently used many of these techniques along the way. I didn’t finish, but I made it a lot further than I might have.

I haven’t yet scheduled my next 100-mile race, but I’m planning on once again heading out next spring for some charity rides. I have the power of experience under my belt, and I know to spend more of my training working on the psychological aspects of racing rather than just focusing on the physical. I may never actually pedal to Mars, but I’m determined to finish 100 miles next time.