A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit



The trained bicyclists thought they had ridden as fast as they possibly could. But Kevin Thompson, head of sport and exercise  science at Northumbrian University in England, wondered if they go could even faster.  So, in an unusual experiment, he tricked them.

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.

While a 2 percent increase in power might seem small, it is enough to make a big difference in a competitive event that lasts four to five minutes, like cycling for 4,000 meters. At the elite level in sports, a 1 percent increase in speed can determine whether an athlete places in a race or comes in somewhere farther back in the pack.

The improved times observed in his experiment, said Dr. Thompson, are “not just day-to-day variability, but a true change in performance.” And they give rise to some perplexing questions.

What limits how fast a person can run or swim or cycle or row? Is it just the body — do fatigued muscles just give out at a certain point? Or is the limit set by a mysterious “central governor” in the brain, as Timothy Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, has called it, that determines pacing and effort and, ultimately, performance?

Until recently, exercise physiologists have mostly focused on the muscles, hearts and lungs of athletes, asking whether fatigue comes because the body has reached its limit.

But athletes themselves have long insisted that mental factors are paramount. Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the four-minute mile, once said: “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ. It’s the brain.”

Now researchers like Dr. Thompson are designing studies to learn more about the brain’s influence over athletic performance.

For example, Jo Corbett, a senior lecturer in applied exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth in England, wondered how much competition can affect an athlete’s speed. To find out, he asked cyclists to ride as hard and as fast as they could on a stationary bicycle for the equivalent of 2,000 meters. As he rode, each rider was shown an on-screen figure representing the cyclist riding the course.

Then Dr. Corbett and his colleagues told each athlete that he would be racing against another rider hidden behind a screen. The researchers projected two figures on the screen, one the outline of the rider and the other the outline of the competitor.

In fact, the competitor on the screen was a computer-generated image of the athlete himself in his own best attempt to ride those 2,000 meters.

The cyclists rode furiously through the on-screen race. And, as happened in Dr. Thompson’s experiments, the cyclists beat their best times, finishing with a burst of speed that carried them to virtual victory by a significant length.

Dr. Corbett said the extra effort, above and beyond what the athletes had previously demonstrated, seems to come from the anaerobic energy system, one that is limited by the amount of fuel stored in muscle. The brain appears to conserve the body’s limited fuel to a certain degree, not allowing athletes to work too hard.  Click here Read More…

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A version of this article appeared in print on September 20, 2011, on page D5 of the New York edition with the headline: A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit.



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5 Comments on “A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit”

  1. Jack H Says:

    My Dad sent me this article, it’s fantastic.


  2. fred Says:


    Thanks for posting this article. I have been very focused lately on the mental aspects of sport, and particularly Crossfit. I have become keenly aware of the role positive mental attitude (or lack thereof) can have on my performance. For me, I have seen this most strikingly in WODs that contain running and lifting. The run component usually allows me time to think while I perform and if I focus on the fact that this is round 1 of 5 or that I have a crushing set of Power Cleans waiting for me, my performance on the run and my overall performance on the WOD suffers. I have been trying to push the “pain barrier” by focusing instead on what I am doing at present and not on the overall task or difficulty of the WOD. There are many examples for me, but another one relates to squat cleans. I have confidence in the movement and it is one of my better lifts, but only up to a point. It is amazing to me how I can hit a squat clean at 180, but then be completely incapable of handling the lift with only an additional 5 pounds added to it. One thing that changes dramatically is my mental approach to the lift. Doubts creep in and I start from the assumption that the weight is really heavy and even though I tell myself that “I can do this,” deep down I have significant doubts. The result is usually a breakdown in form and a failed lift.

    On the positive side of this equation, I have experienced success in situations where I am driven to prove to myself or those around me that I can exceed what I perceive to be people’s expectations for me based on my size or age (or whatever). The key here is that I approach the situation from a PERCEIVED expectation that I can outperform what should be expected of me. It is irrelevant as to performance whether my perceptions are based in reality or entirely created by me. In other words, I go into the situation fully focused on exceeding a certain level of performance, not matching it or failing to achieve it. In these situations, my energy levels feel the highest and my concentration and ability to harness the “stress of performing” is at its best.

    I think focusing energy on the immediate task at hand and taking it in steps is critical to efficient energy use and staying positively focused on performance. As soon as the doubts creep in, it can go down hill for me pretty quickly.

    Sorry for the long diatribe, but this topic has been very much on my mind.



  3. SACKrifice Says:


    I am with you on this topic (really gets me thinking). Whenever I approach a WOD I will break it down into segments. Those segments can either make me or break me. To give an example-

    30 Clean and Jerks

    I performed this last Saturday with the mindset and goal of completed it in sets of 5. That did not happen. I made it to 10 and in my head, I would not allow myself to do more than 1 in a row. Physically I could have done sets of 5 but mentally I broke down and continued with sets of 1. The only item that kept me going was Michele in front of me.

    That WOD was a real mind game for myself and I need to over come situations like that one.

    I am also with you on appearance and how other we are being viewed physically on how we perform each WOD. I am not sure why but I still view myself as being over weight. When I step up to the bar I always assume others say “He cant do this, look at him.” That is one of my biggest driving forces I have that makes me push myself, because I want to show others what ANYONE can do.

    Nice, post!


    • Fred. Says:


      Thanks for the post. I have a question I would like you, Gil and anyone else interested to consider and respond to…Should you fail in order to continue to excel?

      I am aware of the need for strategy and to move through WODs consistently. It is bad to start out like a lunatic only to have performance fade on a longer WOD. For competition this makes all the sense in the world. As you and I have discussed, it is not a good strategy to try to keep up with the young and fast in the beginning if your plan is to ultimately beat them by outlasting them over the long haul of a WOD.

      Outside of game day competition though, is it wise or beneficial during normal training to at times push yourself at an extreme pace from the beginning. Sure, you may fade or fail well before the completion of a WOD, but I am curious about whether these situations of being on the edge or at the extreme can cause you to increase the pain or anaerobic breakdown over time. Put simply, if you warm up with 155, then 135 feels light, but if you warm up with 95, 135 feels heavy. I know I don’t want to do this all the time, but if you ocassionally train your brain to perform and deal with extreme levels of output, can the result be longer perfomance times of high output before physical performance begins to suffer. In other words, if it feels less extreme to the brain, will this translate into a higher threshold of pain tolerance/physical output.

      I know we often talk about “getting out of your comfort zone” and making sure at the end of a WOD you are wriggly on the floor like fish out of water trying to breath. But I am talking about taking it even further and perfoming at the outset at a level you know is not sustainable over the course of a WOD. I am definitely sensitive to the risk of deteriorating confidence that can be associated with “failure”, but I am intrigued by whether this type of “failure” has the potential to create greater gains. Just to be clear, I am not talking about or suggesting that you should ever put yourself into situations where you can physically damage yourself or sustain injury…..

      Thoughts, please….


      • SACKrifice Says:


        I have a pretty good idea where you could be coming from with this and I can only provide examples of my own experience. Gil maybe able to fill in a little on how the body will get used to being uncomfortable and performing.

        When I played rugby going out to practice and going to games was easy! I never once thought that tackling at practice was an issue or going to a game being picked up off the ground and smashed on my back was ever a BIG deal. This was a normal day to day for any rugger. I ended up getting married and had to many commitments to play for one season. I took that season off and returned the following season only to find that those little practices hits where in fact a bloody trauma to my body every hit. I came home more sore than a Freshman rugby player on initiation night. Those hit took me almost a month to fully heal and be able to deal with the pain of rugby. My body failed (being sore) but my mind wanted to get better (not quitting).

        The two days a week of practice would take my body out of its comfort zone and prepared me for Saturdays game. Every hit and tackle I made during practice only kept me from staying down. If I stayed down that meant I had failed. When I got up, that brought my mind to another level and made me realize I CAN PERFORM BETTER!

        As for Crossfit goes, taking yourself out of the comfort zone from what I gather is part of the sport. When you are going for a 3 rep max on that last rep if you struggle, that means your body has hit a new level and is finally accepting the fact you want to succeeds and adopts to make sure you can.

        When you are performing Fran, the 21, 15, 9 of thrusters and pull ups you try to do unbroken. In your mind you see yourself performing that way but can your body handle that? Visual everything and your body will follow (your body may fail but it will catch up to your mind). If not the first time, second time, or seventh time your body will catch up to your mind. Just takes time, commitment and you to make that decision.

        Another example is our new 30lb wall ball. The first day I could not link two wall balls in a row. My coordination was AWFUL. I began to practice… One wall ball led to two, two three and as of last Monday it was up to 7 good shots in a row. I kept failing but my mind wanted to excel. Which led my body to catch up to excel.

        Also, no one ever fails when they want to succeed! Just keep moving till you succeed!

        Hope that answered something!

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