September 24, 2011

Trick Yourself Into Faster, Higher, Better ?

If I put you on a stationary bike in front of a video game screen with an avatar riding a bike and told you that the avatar would be going at your own personal best pace - would you try stay with it?  Would you beat it?  What if that avatar was actually riding a bit faster than your best pace, but I didn't tell you?  Do you think you'd still beat it?

A recent article sent to me by a good friend says that if the avatar is only going 2% faster than your best - you will beat it. It talks about research being done to show that we can actually trick ourselves to be faster and push harder than we ever have before - which is sort of what we do in races and competitions.  As a self-proclaimed runner who is always recruiting new runners (!!) I tell people that one of the hardest parts of running - especially marathon training - is getting used to the idea that you don't have to stop when your mind or body says you should.  Once you do this just one time - keep running after your body/mind has told you to stop - it's incredibly freeing because you realize that you are more powerful than your thoughts or signals.  But sometimes this motivation involves playing tricks on your mind like, I am going to run as hard as I can because maybe I'll rest at the top of this hill.  Then when you get to the top of the hill, picking a new place you're going to "stop".  These mind tricks are also how in competition we make ourselves go faster - not "I need to go faster than I previously have" but "I need to beat that person".

The experiments explained in this article are fascinating and makes me wonder what sorts of mind tricks I'm playing on myself - not only in my life as an athlete (which maybe more consists of tricking myself into running at all), but also as a medical student.  I find myself picking out the narratives that keep me motivated all the time.

From the article:
In their laboratory, Dr. Thompson and his assistant Mark Stone had had the cyclists pedal as hard as they could on a stationary bicycle for the equivalent of 4,000 meters, about 2.5 miles. After they had done this on several occasions, the cyclists thought they knew what their limits were.
Then Dr. Thompson asked the cyclists to race against an avatar, a figure of a cyclist on a computer screen in front them. Each rider was shown two avatars. One was himself, moving along a virtual course at the rate he was actually pedaling the stationary bicycle. The other figure was moving at the pace of the cyclist’s own best effort — or so the cyclists were told.  In fact, the second avatar was programmed to ride faster than the cyclist ever had — using 2 percent more power, which translates into a 1 percent increase in speed.  Told to race against what they thought was their own best time, the cyclists ended up matching their avatars on their virtual rides, going significantly faster than they ever had gone before.
"Work It Harder Make it Better
Do It Faster, Makes Us Stronger
More than Ever Hour After
Our Work is Never Over"
-Daft Punk lyrics to Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
(such a good workout song)

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