How to use your mind to go faster

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The American College of Sports Medicines’ annual mega-conference, held earlier this month in Denver, is a great opportunity to see what questions sports scientists are currently grappling with. I’ve gathered here some of this year’s hot topics in running shoe research. Another topic of perennial interest is the intersection of psychology with sport and exercise science. Here are some of the ACSM presentations in that area that caught my eye.

Cycling outside is easier

Pedal your bike at 200 watts indoors, then do the exact same thing outdoors. It should be the same, after all, a watt is a watt. But various lines of evidence suggest that exercising outdoors differs from exercising indoors in some subtle but significant ways. Perhaps there is something special about the fractal geometry and saturated colors of natural environments that call to our nature-hungry souls. Or perhaps the complexity of the great outdoors simply does a better job of distracting us from our physical discomfort, much like the music or podcasts in our headphones, than the gym or basement walls.

One way to test this idea is to examine exercise in urban and suburban settings, where the surroundings are complex but not necessarily beautiful or pristine. This is what a group of researchers led by Ruggero Ceci of the Swedish Transport Administration did, enlisting 20 regular commuters by bicycle to perform a series of tests in the laboratory and along their normal commuting routes. At an intensity of 65% of VO2 max, cyclists rated their laboratory effort an average of 14.1 (on a scale of 6 to 20) for both breathing and legs. Outdoors, by contrast, the same intensity produced effort ratings of 12.6 for breathing and 11.5 for legs.

In recent years, researchers have realized that there are a number of factors, not just psychological, that make lab tests different from real-world conditions, such as lack of wind in the face. However, Ceci and his colleagues see the new findings as evidence that the higher degree of external stimuli outdoors can make a given level of exercise feel easier, even if you’re biking or running in a city rather than in a nice park.

Boot camps are even better outdoors

The “outdoors are easier” effect is well established for aerobic exercise. But what about resistance training? A group led by Michael Torres of California State University, San Bernardino, along with colleagues from Southern Utah University, California Baptist University and the University of Nevada, shared their findings about circuit training. Their 19 subjects did a circuit training workout rotating through front squats, reverse lunges, pushups, and shoulder presses, both indoors and out.

Again, exercising outdoors was rated as easier: an average of 3.7 on an effort scale of 1 to 10, compared to 4.2 indoors. It’s a fairly easy workout, so it remains to be seen how well the results extend to harder resistance workouts. However, it does suggest that all those boot camps you see at the parks early in the morning might be on to something.

Men and women respond to mental fatigue differently

A relatively new field of research is how mental fatigue affects physical performance, which I have written about several times (e.g. here and here). As with many new insights, what initially seemed like a clear picture—mental fatigue harms physical performance—has gotten a little fuzzier as different research groups try to replicate the findings under different conditions. For example, a recent Swiss study found no effect.

Why the confusion? One possibility is that the effects of mental fatigue depend on who you’re testing and how you test them. Another recent study, conducted by a Belgian group led by Bart Roelands at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, combined the results of 23 previous studies to look for patterns in subjects’ age, gender, body mass index and fitness level, but did not was able to demonstrate that these factors influence susceptibility. to mental fatigue. Probably because previous studies weren’t designed to detect these kinds of differences.

At the ACSM conference, Roelands and his colleagues presented some preliminary data from an ongoing study that specifically aims to assess how age and gender affect mental fatigue. In the 36 subjects tested so far, there has been no overall effect of mental fatigue (induced by 45 minutes of computer activity) on physical performance (assessed by a 15-minute time trial). But when they split the results by subgroup, a pattern emerged: Older men were Moreover susceptible to mental fatigue than younger men; and the old women were less susceptible than younger women.

It remains to be seen whether this pattern will persist as more subjects are tested and whether it will be replicated by other groups using other testing protocols. At this point, I wouldn’t make any bets either way. But I think this is the direction research on mental fatigue needs to go. Based on the accumulation of data so far, I’m pretty confident that mental fatigue has a real effect. But understanding when it matters, and for whom, remains a major challenge.

Mental training helps you run faster

It is clear that your mind influences your physical performance. So logic suggests that you can train your mind to improve your physical performance. But it’s hard to get more specific than that and say: Follow this specific mental training program and you will get faster. These types of studies are really hard to design, in part because it’s hard to tease out the effects of placebo. But it’s worth it, because this is still a relatively untapped area of ​​sports science.

Timothy VanHaitsma of Westmont College presented data from a fairly simple sounding mental training program designed to improve mental toughness. Eleven of their 20 subjects were randomized to follow a two-week program that involved watching a five-minute video every day. The videos, specially produced by Dartmouth University sports psychologist Stephen Gonzalez, taught strategies for managing stress (both internal and external), feelings of anxiety and panic in stressful situations. Before and after mental training, all subjects completed a 90-minute easy/moderate run followed by a 1.5-mile time trial.

The results are almost too good. During the last 90-minute run, the mental training group reported lower overall effort, leg fatigue and pain, and their heart rates were seven beats per minute lower at the same pace as in their first run. In the time trial, they ran 37 seconds faster (compared to just 6.5 seconds for the control group), with slightly lower heart rate and perceived exertion. VanHaitsma attributes these impressive results in part to decreased parasympathetic nervous system activity (otherwise known as chill out).

As always with preliminary results (they are still collecting data from more subjects), there are questions as to whether larger groups will produce the same results. In this case, as it happens, VanHaitsma and his colleagues have another study completed that was just published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology with 33 participants who did bicycle time trials and saw broadly similar improvements. In this study, subjects watched four ten-minute videos on topics such as breathing techniques, controlling the controllables, self-talk and mental imagery.

The inevitable question in studies like this is whether the mind training groups got any benefit from the placebo. But I’m honestly not sure how that differentiates between the placebo effects and the increased confidence and self-confidence that the study is explicitly trying to promote. If it’s a placebo effect that makes you 37 seconds faster over 1.5 miles, and if this finding is repeatable, we should all be lucky enough to be fooled. The bottom line, though, is that I’m curious to see those videos.

For more Sweat Science, join me Chirping and Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter and check out my book Resisting: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

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