This month, Puma released a video of its BeatBot, a shoebox-size robot with wheels designed to lead runners as fast and as far as they’d like to travel on a track. Call it a pacer, a rabbit, or any of the myriad terms runners have used for years to describe the human equivalent. Puma has, for the first time, mechanized this common training method.
Human rabbits have been a common part of runners’ training since the 1950s, when Roger Bannister, paced by several runners, ran the first sub-four-minute mile. A 2015 study confirmed its efficacy. In it, elite runners ran 3,000 meters (just shy of two miles) solo and then again with a pacer for the first 2,000 meters. Alone, they were not only “substantially slower,” but also had higher blood lactate concentration and perceived the effort as more difficult.
Pacers offer athletes one of the most common motivations for performance: the fear of failure, says to sports psychologist Mark Walch, of Performance Edge Coaching in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With it, the athlete is motivated by a constant comparison of himself or herself to others, and the runner is literally trying outrace the rabbit.
Walch believes that the physiological change in blood lactate concentration may also be psychological. With a solo workout, he says, athletes suffer from a baseline anxiety that is triggered by being alone in a performance situation. The body has to perform the task, while managing the physical exertion that comes from stress. “You’re literally having to work harder because you’ve got the additional weight of those fears triggered,” says Walch. A pacer provides a focal point, which lowers stress and allows the athlete to stay in the present moment. That, Walch says, is where peak performance occurs.
In addition to the mental aspect of a pacer, there are also physical benefits to being led through a workout, according to Janet Hamilton, a sports physiologist and running coach based in Atlanta, Georgia. “Alone, you’re cutting your own path through a column of air and this provides a bit of resistance, making you work a little harder,” she says. “Ask any race-car driver about drafting. They know quite well the advantage of the slipstream.”
Can Puma’s BeatBox replace the human pacer? It may provide a physical presence to compete with, but it’s hard to say if it will substitute as a focal point—and it undoubtedly can’t block wind like a human body. Until the company releases a life-size pacer, your best bet is still with another runner.