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Sweat Science

How to Harness Your Mind to Go Faster

Researchers present new findings on mental fatigue, mental training, and the importance of your surroundings


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

Cycling Outside Feels Easier

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

One way of testing this idea is to look at exercise in urban and suburban environments, where the surroundings are complex but not necessarily beautiful or pristine. That’s what a group of researchers led by Ruggero Ceci of the Swedish Transport Administration did, enlisting 20 regular bike commuters to perform a series of tests in the lab and along their regular commuting routes. At an intensity of 65 per cent of VO2 max, the cyclists rated their effort in the lab as 14.1 on average (on a scale of 6 to 20) for both their breathing and their legs. Outdoors, in 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 bunch of factors, not just psychological, that make lab tests different from real-world conditions, like the lack of wind in your face. Still, Ceci and his colleagues view the new results 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 through a city rather than a beautiful park.

Boot Camps Are Also Better Outdoors

The outdoors-is-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 on circuit training. Their 19 subjects did a circuit training workout rotating through front squat, reverse lunge, push-ups, and shoulder press, both indoors and outdoors.

Once again, the outdoor workout was rated as easier: an average of 3.7 on a 1 to 10 effort scale, compared to 4.2 indoors. That’s a pretty easy workout, so it remains to be seen how well the results extend to harder resistance workouts. Still, it suggests that all those boot camps you see in parks early in the morning might be onto something.

Men and Women Respond to Mental Fatigue Differently

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

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, from a Belgian group led by Bart Roelands at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, combined the results of 23 earlier studies to look for patterns in the age, sex, BMI, and fitness level of subjects, but couldn’t show that these factors affect susceptibility to mental fatigue. That’s likely because the earlier studies weren’t designed to detect these sorts 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 sex affect mental fatigue. In the 36 subjects they’ve tested so far, there was no overall effect of mental fatigue (induced by a 45-minute computer task) on exercise performance (assessed by a 15-minute time trial). But when they broke the results down by subgroup, a pattern emerged: older men were more susceptible to mental fatigue than younger men; and older women were less susceptible than younger women.

Whether this pattern will persist when they test more subjects, and whether it will be replicated by other groups using other testing protocols, remains to be seen. At this point, I wouldn’t make any bets either way. But I think this is the direction mental fatigue research needs to go in. Based on the accumulation of data so far, I’m fairly confident that mental fatigue has a real effect. But figuring out when it matters, and for whom, remains an important challenge.

Mental Training Helps You Run Faster

It’s 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 tricky to get more specific than that and say, “Follow this specific mental training program, and you will get faster.” Those sorts of studies are really hard to design, in part because it’s tricky to tease out placebo effects. But it’s worth the effort, because this is still a relatively untapped area of sports science.

Westmont College’s Timothy VanHaitsma presented data from a fairly simple-sounding mental training program designed to enhance mental strength. Eleven of their 20 subjects were randomized to follow a two-week program that involved watching a five-minute video each day. The videos, produced specially by Dartmouth University sports psychologist Stephen Gonzalez, “taught strategies for controlling stress (both internal and external), feelings of anxiousness, and panic in stressful situations.” Before and after the 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 final 90-minute run, the mental training group reported lower overall effort, leg fatigue, and pain, and their heart rate was seven beats per minute lower at the same pace as in the first run. In the time trial, they got 37 seconds faster (compared to just 6.5 seconds for the control group), with a slightly lower heart rate and perceived effort. VanHaitsma attributes these impressive results in part to decreases in parasympathetic nervous system activity (otherwise known as chilling out).

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

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

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