Could a Little Deception Help Me Break My Personal Bests?

Jan 19, 2012

Last fall I read an article in The New York Times, “A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit,” that really made me reflect on my own athletic abilities and the value of sport psychology. I’ll admit that I was a bit reluctant to accept the premise of the study; it’s not every day that a newspaper article makes me question how hard I push myself, and if I truly have found my physical limits!

In essence, the experiment showed that athletes are physically capable of a 2% improvement on a performance if they are mislead to believe that they had previously achieved it. In other words, the athletes’ brains limit their physical abilities. Although the experiment was done with cyclists, I immediately wondered how this would translate to rowing and whether a little deception from my coxswain or my erg monitor could potentially help me break my “usual” times.

So, what would a 2% improved time translate into for a 6-minute rowing race? My World Championship final race time of 6:04.39 would have been 5:57.10, a whopping 7.29 seconds improvement! In the world of rowing, or rather in an eights race, that is roughly two boat lengths! A fraction of a percent would have been sufficient to win in that given race. Looking at the stats, I was now determined to give the theory a try. If I could unleash a bit more speed, then all the better…it’s the Olympic year!

At our fall 6k erg test, I devised my own adapted experiment: could less erg data make me achieve more than I thought myself capable of? I decided to cover part of my erg monitor so that I would forgo instant feedback on my splits, but I would see the rate and the running time. My rationale was that given it’s early in the erging season, I shouldn’t rely on the splits my Performance Monitor was displaying or past benchmarks, but rather I should be striving for the same feeling I was experiencing in the boat. Also, without visual distractions of splits and predicted times, I could simply focus on how hard I was going. As a result, I was preventing my brain from dictating if I should go harder or not, based on the times I was seeing.

In the end, I achieved a better test than I thought myself capable of, but it was not a personal best. What I found interesting was how positive I felt throughout the test. My mind could not question my physical effort from the numbers on the screen since there were none! I also had no inner voice telling me “that feels harder than this split should feel like,” or “is this a sustainable pace?” I was pacing myself like I would on the water, I was on the attack, going on feel and believing in myself.

I did find the exercise a rewarding one, although I am not sure if I will cover my erg monitor again for a sanctioned erg test. I learned that the information displayed on my erg monitor could adversely affect me, whereby instead of helping find my pace, the data once computed by me (my brain) could limit me. I will keep striving for that 2% improved performance. Within limits, if my brain or my coxswain can manipulate the information I receive to make me believe I am capable of more, then perhaps I can unleash the reserve energy that my mind withholds!

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