Mind over body can push athletes further

By Meredith Rutland • Published: December 9th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

It happens to even the best of athletes. One day, you find that you can’t go any faster … no matter how hard you push yourself.

But what if it’s your brain, not your body, that’s holding you back?

An experiment done by the Northumbrian University in England showed tricking an athlete’s brain may help improve his or her score.

Trained cyclists pedaled on a stationary bicycle as fast as they could for about 2.5 miles. Then, they were told to race against a computer image that represented their best time.

But it was a lie.

The computer actually went 1 percent faster than the rider’s best time. The rider, believing he was matching his own best time, stayed neck-and-neck with the false time throughout the race.

Until recently, the heart, lungs and worked muscles have gotten most of exercise physiologists’ attention. But this type of mind-over-body trick shows that the brain may actually be the most important organ when it comes to overcoming an athletic plateau. Interestingly, motivations like competition can push an athlete further than they could normally go, but other studies have shown that certain incentives, like money, have no effect on performance.

In an American Council on Exercise study, trained runners drank “super-oxygenated” water before a run. The water was actually normal tap water, but most of the athletes who drank it ran faster.

Some even asked where they could buy the water.

Runners who usually completed a 5-K run in more than 20 minutes improved their time by an average of two minutes and 22 seconds. Those who usually finished in less than 20 minutes saw their time improve by about 28 seconds.

The placebo effect probably won’t be making Olympian athletes out of the average jogger. But the next time you find yourself in a training slump, remember to think positively. After all, your mind has more control than you think.