The sun beats down on your head. Sweat drips from the tip of your nose, and your legs and feet beg for a reprieve. As you cross the finish line at your latest marathon, you squeeze every last ounce of energy from your body because, damn it, you will crack three hours this time around.
And then you see your time: three hours, one minute, twelve seconds. You feel stupid for the thought, however fleeting, that it was all for naught.
Your love of round numbers—and their implied significance—isn’t unique. In fact, as Runner’s World reports, a new study by economists at UC–Berkeley and the University of Chicago crunched data from more than nine million marathon finishes since 1970 and found that chasing elusive round marks is the norm for athletes of all stripes.
Of course, completing a marathon with a slightly slower time doesn’t mean much in the long run. Puns aside, you still accomplished a physical feat many people couldn’t.
So, if the arbitrary goals we give ourselves while training don’t really matter to our health, why do we fixate on them? As the study’s authors explain, the phenomenon of “bunching”—spikes in finishes just before hour, half-hour, and even ten-minute milestones—“cannot be explained by explicit rewards (e.g., qualifying for the Boston Marathon), peer effects, or institutional features (e.g., pacesetters).” The answer, instead, lies in the psychology of goal setting. Although the physical benefits are negligible, the psychological ones are very real, and when we fail to meet the goals we’ve set for ourselves, that failure stings.
As with any data involving more than nine million points, these scientists had a lot of information to parse, and the thing is worth a read—if you’ve got the time and the patience—but some key points should be highlighted anyway.
For one, in the final two miles of marathons, participants generally slowed down by 5 to 14 percent. That is, unless they were close to a round-number barrier, in which case, the study found, they often sped up. In other words, these arbitrary goals really can lead athletes to tap into the depths of their energy reserves.
But there’s a limit to this seemingly superhuman psychological strength. At faster marathon times, the ability to speed up in pursuit of breaking a round number declined: only 30 percent of runners trying to crack the three-hour mark could accelerate on their push to the finish, compared with more than 40 percent trying to finish in under five hours.
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