Here's one way to run faster or pedal harder: fool yourself.
Researchers proved it works in a study out this week by lying to several trained, competitive bicyclists as they pedaled on stationary bikes. In the test, they recruited 14 men to ride the bikes, called ergometers, in four sessions. The first session was just to get them used to the equipment. The second was to set a baseline performance, measuring speed and power output.
Then in the third session, the scientists, from Indiana University, displayed two digital bicyclists on a screen. The left avatar represented the current performance, and the avatar on the right represented the cyclist's performance in the baseline session. But here's the thing: Even though they told each cyclist it was the baseline performance, it was actually a couple of percentage points faster.
As expected, they did better in that round. The strange thing was that they also did better in the fourth round, when the researchers told them they were being deceived. On average, their fourth round performance was 2.1 percent above their actual baseline score.
The researchers believe the brain is a powerful inhibitor for athletes. "The idea is that there's some sort of governor in your brain that regulates exercise intensity so you don't overheat, or run out of gas, so to speak," said Ren-Jay Shei, a doctoral student in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, in a press release. "In this case, the governor was reset to a higher upper limit, allowing for improved performance."
For athletes, the brain can be as vital as any muscle. There's plenty of research to back this up. A study in November in the UK examined the phenomenon of cricket players talking to themselves while batting (they call it "self-talk"). Through in-depth interviews with professional players, they discovered that this kind of babbling helped focus their attention and relieve anxiety.
Another recent study looked at athletes in a slump, which, as they put it, is "one of the most frustrating, stressful experiences for a competitive athlete to endure." The cause, they determined from talking to 70 "elite athletes," was simple pessimism. If an athlete had a bad day, those who attribute their bad day to something negative are more likely to keep having bad days. "This downward spiral of performance outcomes and psychological state leads to a slump that can engulf athletes without them understanding why it happened or how to stop it," they wrote.