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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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