Category Archives: Fitness and exercise

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COMPETITION AND ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE: a conspiracy of researchers, stationary bikes and little white lies

Walt Disney once said, “I have been up against tough competition all my life.  I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”

Well, weekend warriors and gym rats may be able to learn a thing or two from the creator of the goofy little mouse with red shorts.  Scientific research is now exploring the relationship between competition and athletic performance, and recent studies support the conclusion that people perform at greater levels when competing against an opponent.

For example, Professor Kevin Thompson, the Head of Sports and Exercise Science for Northumbria University, recently examined the effects of competition by asking cyclists to ride a stationary bike.   As they rode, each participant was shown two avatars on a video screen: the first avatar depicting the participant’s current pace and a second avatar depicting a cyclist riding at a rate equal to each participant’s personal best pace.  The cyclists were told to race the second avatar in an effort to beat their personal best time.

Dr. Thompson’s representations weren’t exactly true.  The second avatar was actually moving at a rate that was slightly greater than each participant’s personal best pace. Still, the participants, who were cycling while watching the avatars on the video screen, were able to match the second avatar.  As a result, the participants actually beat their personal best rate.

Dr. Thompson ultimately concluded that such competition can lead to an improvement of up to 5% in sporting performance.  He explained that

[t]hese findings demonstrate that a metabolic reserve exists which, if it can be accessed, can release a performance improvement of between two and five per cent in terms of their average power output.  At elite level sport, even an increase of one per cent in average speed can make the difference between somebody being placed in a race or not.

We may all have a little bit of untapped potential.  Dr. Jo Corbett, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for Sports Performance at the University of Portsmouth, conducted a similar study.  The results, published in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, were strikingly similar to the research conducted by Dr. Thompson.

Dr. Corbett directed fourteen cyclists to independently ride a stationary bike at maximum speed.  A video display rendered a computer image of each cyclist, providing a visual depiction of his or her pace.

Later, they were again directed to ride the stationary bike at maximum speed.  This time, however, each cyclist was told that he or she would be competing against another participant hidden behind a screen.  As they rode, the cyclists were shown two images on the video display: an avatar that represented the cyclist and an avatar representing his or her undisclosed opponent.

Almost every cyclist beat the opponent during the second trial.  After the race, however, they learned that the undisclosed opponent was actually a visual rendering of each cyclists’ previous best time.  In other words, each cyclist, believing that they were independently competing with another person, actually outperformed their earlier maximum performance.  Dr. Corbett concluded that

[w]hen an athlete finishes exercising they are almost always left with a physiological energy reserve but our results show that head-to-head competition provides the motivation to tell the brain to eat into a greater part of this reserve.

The basis of this and similar conclusions isn’t necessarily revolutionary: we’ve long noted the correlation between competition and athletic performance.  Now, however, we’re starting to uncover the scientific basis for the increased performance, and the key seems to be tapping hidden potential and drawing upon untapped energy reserves.  It may be time to ditch the energy shots and breathable caffeine and seek the company of a friend or a colleague when pounding the pavement or hitting the trails.

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On a slow news day, correspondents author stories about athletes exercising until they puke

It’s that time of year again.  Pitchers and catchers have already reported, hungry rookies are trying to earn a spot in the majors and aging veterans are scratching and clawing to hold on to their jobs.  Baseball is in full swing, and the countdown to opening day is well underway.

It’s also the time of year where the 24-hour-news cycle demands that local beatwriters and correspondents break news about local teams.  That’s not necessarily as easy as it may sounds.  Absent a handful of trades, a few injuries and a certain arbitration hearing, the early days of spring training aren’t the most fertile ground for compelling stories about local franchises.   Major leaguers are simply arriving at facilities, running around the diamond, playing catch and taking batting practice. Uh… woohoo?

Not surprisingly, in the collective wasteland of lackluster events, local correspondents are more than willing to author stories about sluggers exercising until they puke.

I’m talking about you, J.D. Martinez.  The 24-year-old Astros outfielder recently explained that he hired a personal trainer to help with his conditioning.  Martinez selected Nick Casazza, because the slugger wanted a trainer to use a program that would cause him to vomit.  From the Ultimate Astros blog:

“I told him, ‘If you don’t make me puke in the first week, I’m not going to come back’ ” Martinez said.

Nick Casazza needed about 10 minutes to accomplish that.

“When he went outside and threw up, he was looking at me like I was the craziest person he ever met in his life,” Casazza said. “But you know what? The kid showed up the next day. He kept coming back. I said, ‘This guy is the real deal.’ ”

Martinez, 24, remembers that first week for “puking everywhere” and for this: “I knew then he was going to be the trainer I was going to be with.”

Uh… J.D….  Nick… your realize that you can get in pretty darn good shape without puking, right?  It’s probably not the best of ideas unless, of course, you’re recycling last night’s StrasBurger.

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Charles Schultz’s Pig-Pen visits a local gym

Remember Charles Schultz’s Pig-Pen, from The Peanuts comic strip?  The grubby cartoon character was always surrounded by a palpable cloud of dirt and stench.  The little guy just looked like he carried a stink that could bruise the olfactory glands.

I just got back from the gym, and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the real life personification of Pig-Pen.  It was pretty darn obvious that he hadn’t washed his soiled, sweaty, stained clothes in a hell of a long time.  It literally hurt to find myself stuck beside the pollution only twenty minutes into my cardio workout.

Good grief, Charlie Brown – my nose hurt.  It still hurts.

Look, I’m not exactly the most tidy person to walk the earth.  From time to time, my refrigerator looks like a laboratory hiding some type of science experiment gone awry.  I have three lazy, shedding dogs frequently conspire to hide small, organic gifts throughout the house.  I’m often celebrating the joys associated with being a bachelor who lives by himself.  I’m just not easily offended by a repugnant odor.

If I’m offended by a stench, though, I can only imagine how it’s affecting the poor elderly person on an adjacent elliptical machine.  She was coughing and sneezing when I left.  I hope she makes it.

Folks, I know it goes without saying, but please spread the word: washing old, soiled gym clothes and taking regular showers should not be optional.

/endrant

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LIVESTRONG: February 19, 2012, Austin, Texas

The weather was a little chilly during the small hours of the morning.  At around 5:30am, the temperature was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-seven degrees.  And, of course, the wind knew little mercy.

Sounds like the perfect day for a brisk little run, no?

Earlier today, I was privileged to join more than 20,000 runners and approximately 40,000 spectators who descended upon downtown Austin, Texas for the LIVESTRONG Marathon and the LIVESTRONG Half-Marathon.

I’m not sure that I can find the appropriate words to describe the experience of the half-marathon, simply because the passion was almost overwhelming and the emotions were very nearly tangible.  I’m certain that folks who are better able to reduce inspiration to text will post the details on a different blog or website.  I’ll simply note that this is the first time that I’ve been part of an event where I truly felt that most participants were not competing against each other, but rather racing for something greater.

I will, however, also note that it’s time to check the calendar and save the date for the next LIVESTRONG Marathon and Half-Marathon, because February 17, 2013 is quickly approaching.

EXTREME SPORTS: have unusual diets, candy bars and sugary nuggets of bliss resulted in record-breaking success?

Herschel Junior Walker was a heck of a football player. He set a high school record by scoring 86 touchdowns and added another 5,259 rushing yards during three seasons at the University of Georgia. He was a set 10 NCAA records, was a three time All American, won the Heisman Trophy and was later named to the College Football Hall of Fame. Herschel also enjoyed a productive and successful professional football career, busting tackles and dodging defenders in both the United States Football League and the National Football League, where he played for the Dallas Cowboys, the the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants.

The man has appeared on the cover of nine editions of Sports Illustrated. Nine! Enough said.

You’d think that Herschel would have adhered to a restrictive diet complimented by enough supplements to make the average person radiate a glowing hue of chartreuse. Not so. In fact, at one point while he was steamrolling through the collegiate ranks, he ate nothing but candy bars. Herschel recently described how Snickers, being packed with peanuts and other junk, really satisfies:

I remember when I was at the University of Georgia, I started eating Snickers bars. I actually loved candy bars and I ate Snickers bars. For almost a month and a half, that was my one meal of the day was Snickers bars. And I was fine. Nothing ever changed. I worked out. I had the energy… I went out and did what I was supposed to do and I don’t know whether you’re naive or stupid, that God just takes care of you because I wasn’t thinking about all the cholesterol, all the calories, all this. All I was thinking about was getting my job done… It was probably about ten Snickers bars. My one meal was probably about 10 of them. So it wasn’t just one, I had a bunch of ’em.

Still, there’s more to the story. When he was a teenager, Herschel adopted a mostly vegetarian diet and began eating only one meal a day. The diet has remained consistent, and his single daily meal now mainly consists of bread and soup or a salad. That’s it.

Most folks would likely suffer increases in total cholesterol or problems with blood pressure or glucose. Surprisingly, though, eating only one meal each day has apparently worked for him. Herschel has since represented the United States in the 1992 Winter Olympic two-man bobsled team, now carriers fifth degree black belt in Taekwando, and has competed in professional mixed martial arts. He won his first match at the age of forty seven, defeating Greg Nagy. Forty Seven! Not a typo!

The world may, however, never see another athlete like Herschel Walker… and we can blame Snickers for the loss. Mars, Inc., the corporate manufacturer of Snickers, is slimming down the candy bar. The company has announced that it plans to restrict its sales to candy bars that do not exceed 250 calories by the end of the year, meaning that the king-sized and super-jumbo-turbo models will disappear from the shelves in the fairly near future.

Mars Spokeswoman Marlene Machut said the plan was part of the company’s’ “broad-based commitment to health and nutrition.” According to Mars’ website, this commitment is a component of a systematic plan to promote wellness while still peddling chocolate, caramel and that odd coarse nougat that conquered the three musketeers. Again, according to the website, the Mars is globally committing to:

  • Not to buy advertising time or space if more than a quarter of the audience is likely to be under 12 years of age; nor will we advertise on websites aimed at those under 12
  • To implement Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) nutrition labeling on the majority of our chocolate and confectionery globally by year-end 2011 and will continue to roll out GDA across our entire food portfolio
  • Not to ship any Mars chocolate products that exceed 250 calories per portion by the end of 2013
  • To reduce sodium levels in all Mars Food products globally by 25 percent by 2015, from a 2007 baseline. We are doing this by participating in government initiatives and agreeing to voluntary reduction commitments in different regions.

Hershel Walker is not happy, but the NBA’s Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard and the NFL’s Marshawn Lynch are breathing a collective sigh of relief. They’re obsessed with Skittles. Even though these candies are manufactured by The Wrigley Company, which is owned by Mars, the nutritional initiative will not affect them. Skittles aren’t chocolate products, and therefore Mars doesn’t plan to take any action that will affect the health, wellness or nutrition of consumers of the little drops of hydrogenated palm kernel oil, modified corn starch, titanium dioxide, carnuaba wax and yellow 5 coloring.

Whew.

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