Pushing the limits of performance

Deceiving the brain can lead to an improvement of up to five per cent in sporting performance, according to research from Northumbria University – news which could have a significant impact on Team GB’s chances in the 2012 Olympics.

In a research project, trained cyclists were asked to race against an avatar on a computer screen which they believed was moving at the rate of the cyclist’s personal best.

However, the avatar was actually going at a speed one per cent faster than the cyclist’s fastest time.  Despite this, the cyclists, who could also see themselves as an avatar cycling the virtual course, were able to match their opponent, going faster than they ever had before.

Researchers believe this is because there is a reserve of energy production that can be tapped into, even in well-trained athletes.

In training, the mind anticipates the end of a bout of exercise in order to set an initial pace. Sensory receptors, which monitor the body’s responses, feed this information back to the brain, allowing it to control the body’s resources to last until the end of the exercise to avoid damage.

Professor Kevin Thompson, Head of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Northumbria University, who carried out the research along with PhD student Mark Stone, said: “We feel that this system is conservative and even in well-trained individuals, who have a well developed pacing template, there is a reserve of energy production which can be utilised to further enhance performance.”

He added: “These findings demonstrate a metabolic reserve exists which, if it can be accessed, can release a performance improvement of between two and five per cent in terms of their average power output.

“At elite level sport, even an increase of one per cent in average speed can make the difference between somebody being placed in a race or not.’’

The study found that adding a competitive opponent to motivate participants to access this reserve was not effective when the participant was aware that their opponent was exercising at a power output 2% or 5% greater, but was effective when participants did not know.

Prof Thompson added: “We believe a small deception of the brain can enhance performance. Despite the internal feedback to the brain being heightened by the extra power output being produced, the participants still believed it was possible to beat their opponent.”

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  • Professor Kevin Thompson

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