Effects of deceptive running speed on physiology, perceptual responses, and performance during sprint-distance triathlon


Objective: This study examined the effects of speed deception on performance, physiological and perceptual responses, and pacing during sprint-distance triathlon running.

Methods: Eight competitive triathletes completed three simulated sprint-distance triathlons (0.75 km swim, 20 km bike, 5 km run) in a randomized order, with swimming and cycling sections replicating baseline triathlon performance. During the first 1.66 km of the run participants maintained an imposed speed, completing the remaining 3.33 km as quickly as possible. Although the participants were informed that initially prescribed running speed would reflect baseline performance, this was true during only one trial (Tri-Run100%). As such, other trials were either 3% faster (Tri-Run103%), or 3% slower (Tri-Run97%) than baseline during this initial period.

Results: Performance during Tri-Run103% (1346 ± 108 s) was likely faster than Tri-Run97% (1371 ± 108 s), and possibly faster than Tri-Run100% (1360 ± 125 s), with these differences likely to be competitively meaningful. The first 1.66 km of Tri-Run103% induced greater physiological strain compared to other conditions, whilst perceptual responses were not significantly different between trials.

Conclusions: It appears that even during “all-out” triathlon running, athletes maintain some form of “reserve” capacity which can be accessed by deception. This suggests that expectations and beliefs have a practically meaningful effect on pacing and performance during triathlon, although it is apparent that an individual's conscious intentions are secondary to the brains sensitivity to potentially harmful levels of physiological and perceptual strain.


Alex’s Notes: This was an interesting study. We have all heard the mantra “mind over matter,” but just how much control does our mind actually have? Apparently, the mind has an ongoing “internal negotiation” with the body that functions to determine if the current levels of physiological stress can be safely maintained for the remainder of whatever is occurring. For anyone who has neared the end of a race or is almost done with their heavy weight-lifting session, this is best exemplified by the “second-wind” that gives you boundless energy as the finish line approaches. Moreover, during the earlier portions of the stressful event, the mind incorporates a substantial reserve capacity that prevents anyone from reaching their true physiological threshold in order to protect the body from harm. A perfect example of going beyond this “ceiling” is the life-threatening adrenaline rush that unlocks all the brakes on your muscular system so much so that you actually risk tearing your tendons and ligaments through the shear maximum contractile force your brain will never let you use other than that moment. This isn’t so crazy when you consider that a 41 year-old women tackled a polar bear who threatened her son and two friends, was able to hold her own until help arrived, and other than being covered in blood and in shock, was completely unharmed.

But anyways, I’m getting off-topic (somewhat). The current study aimed to elaborate upon earlier studies attempting to deceive the mind into raising its threshold ceiling. Eight non-elite competitive triathletes that had been competing for at least the last 12 months and were currently in the off-season were recruited. They completed six testing sessions in total with the first being a VO2peak treadmill test, the second being a field-based sprint-distance triathlon (750m swim, 20km cycle, & 5km run) to establish baseline performance, and the third being a familiarization with the testing protocols and measurement methods. The remaining three sessions were a simulated triathlon (same as baseline test) that were performed at the same time of day and separated by at least three days of rest. The work rate for the swim and cycle portions was held constant at each participants baseline performance, and

“At the end of the second transition of each trial, the participants mounted the treadmill and were instructed to maintain the prescribed running speed for the first 1.66 km, having been misinformed that this speed would always equate to their baseline triathlon performance. On reaching 1.66 km participants were instructed to complete the remainder of each trial in as short a time as possible, as during competition.”

The manipulated treadmill speed either matched baseline speed, or was set to 97% or 103% of baseline speed. Not surprisingly, the fastest run time was during the 103% run, being 14 seconds fast than baseline and 25 seconds fast than the 97% run. Unfortunately, this result didn’t reach statistical significance, but magnitude-based inferences did indicate it was “likely” faster, and given that the top 20 elite triathletes at the 2012 World Age-Group Sprint-Distance Championships differed only in run and overall event performance by an average of nine seconds, the 14 second benefit of deception could the difference between silver and gold, especially in non-elite triathletes.

The 103% run also induced significantly greater physiological strain on the body compared to the other trials. Yet, despite the greater stress which should induce more fatigue, the participants completed the run in a faster time, suggesting that fatigue and physiological disturbances are indirectly rather than directly a factor in self-selected exercise intensity. More importantly, this provides further evidence that our mind, expectations, and beliefs influence our performance. It is also possible that the athletes embraced the pain and viewed it as a measure of successful performance, thus providing them with more “mind” to overcome the “matter.”

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