Tag Archives: gym

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.


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.



FITNESS AND FRAPATHINGIES. How gourmet coffee and television combine to form a unique experience at the gym.

DISCLAIMER:  I’m probably going to offend a handful of the folks who are reading this blog.  I probably should plea for forgiveness or ask that you not take offense, but that really wouldn’t come across as genuine or honest in the context of this post.  This is the Internet, after all, and the least we can ask from anyone using the medium is to be genuine and honest.  Or something like that. 

Anyways, I’ve been a member of the local gym for a couple of years.  It’s a pretty basic place, and it therefore doesn’t have the most advanced cardiovascular equipment.  These machines get the job done, but there really isn’t anything luxurious or extravagant about actually getting the job done.  That’s fine, and doesn’t seem to keep your typical gymrat from getting in shape, killing a bit of stress or just posing in front of the mirror.

The gym does, however, have a handful of community televisions hanging from the rafters.  These little miracles of modern technology are typically tuned to some type of sporting event, a national news network or a bad movie featuring a washed-up cast that’s shown on a irrelevant cable network.  It’s not a terrible deal, and there’s something to be said about combining exhaustion and exercise with a bit of spoonfed entertainment.

Now, however, a new breed of weekend warriors have recent invaded this domain and claimed the community televisions as their bounty.    They come dressed in sparkly new fitness uniforms and are typically armed a frapathingie from the local coffee shop.  They tend to lumber on over to the nearest elliptical or treadmill, prepared to stroll the morning away and do everything they can to avoid spilling their frapathingies and getting sweat on their sparkly new fitness uniforms.

And, of course, they regularly change the channels on the community television.  Gone are the days of sporting events, national news and bad movies.  Now we’re treated to programming that focuses on iced cupcakes, lavish pies, thick sauces, and a heck of a lot of sugar and sodium.

That’s right: everyone else is now watching the Food Network.  The freakin’ Food Network.

Now, I’ve got nothing against the Food Network.  A lot of people obviously love its programming.  It’s not my first choice for spoonfed entertainment, but it probably ranks somewhere between late-night infomercials and the black and white grainy snow that used to flow from rabbit ears and coat hangers before we were introduced to the wonders of cable television.  Not great, but certainly not a disaster.

But really… the Food Network?  An entire channel that’s mostly dedicated to providing a first-hand account of the rise of obesity and related diseases?  An entire channel that focuses on a lifestyle that has caused many folks to truly need to come to the gym to reduce significant risks to their own health or, in more extreme cases, even save their own lives?  Is this the environment that we want to foster at the gym?   Apparently so.

Anyways, that’s my rant for the day.  I’d write more, but I’ve probably spent too long picking on these folks and it’s just about time to retrieve my double-chocolate triple-fudge iced cheesecake from the oven.

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