There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down. First, we have superstition. Your friend believes his kit is lucky, and that belief in itself may actually make him go faster.
Anecdotally, several of the world’s best athletes have climbed to the top wearing lucky attire. Half of the pros on the Men’s Fitness list of the 10 most superstitious athletes had rituals related to clothes. According to the article, Jason Giambi wore a gold thong, Björn Borg wore the same FILA shirt to five Wimbledons, and Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform.
You probably don’t need to read a study to tell you that superstition improves performance by making you have more confidence in your abilities, but if you want to, here’s one published in 2010 in the journal Psychological Science. Those pros, and your friend, are onto something.
Other researchers, however, would point to Jordan’s Bulls uniform, not his lucky undershorts, as his greatest performance enhancer. Particularly in team sports, red and black are the colors of champions.
Researchers in the U.K. found that Athens Olympians competing in combative sports like tae kwon do, boxing, and wrestling won more often when wearing red. It’s the color of dominance, the researchers said, and although that particular study was discredited for not taking into account that the athletes’ seeding affected what color they wore, other studies have shown red to be a winning color.
One such study, published in 2008, found that soccer teams in the U.K. who wore red won significantly more matches than teams wearing other colors. The problem is, researchers don’t know if that’s because the color influences how the referees react to the red team, how the other team reacts to the red team, or whether wearing red actually makes the players more aggressive.
Which leads us to black. A study published in 1988 tried to determine if wearing black influenced the behavior of the athlete dressed in black. “In virtually all cultures,” the researchers wrote, black is seen as “the color of evil and death.” So how would it affect sports performance? Researchers at Cornell University determined that wearing a black uniform did, indeed, tend to make people act more aggressively—a characteristic often associated with better performance.
A much more recent study, published in 2011 by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, concluded that “athletes relate to uniform colors on an emotional level,” and that “darker colors were more appealing to the emotions related to Ideal Performance States,” meaning wearing darker colors like maroon can put you in the right mood to kick ass.
While virtually none of these studies were done on athletes pursuing individual endurance sports, where being too aggressive early on can lead to a mid-race bonk, it’s certainly worth noting their findings.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Go ahead and poke fun at skinny Santa, but if you don’t want him to smoke you at your next race, try wearing something lucky. Preferably in red or black.