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November 12, 2012

The importance of psychology in sports performance shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly in endurance races. As spring starts to come round and various marathons – London, Brighton, Paris – loom ever closer, various running authorities are keen  on reminding us that the first 10 miles of the marathon are run with the head, the next 10 with the legs, and the last 6.2 with the heart.

Channel 4 broadcast an interesting programme on the placebo effect by Derren Brown on Friday. If you missed it and you’re in the UK, it’s worth seeing if you can watch it on catch up. The essential premise of the programme was that Brown tested a pill with various different groups to combat various different behaviours – reduce fear (of heights, singing in public, confrontation, etc.), quit smoking, clear up dermatitis, etc. Rather than being given an experimental drug, the participants were given sugar pills. For the majority, the effects were profound and each made significant progress towards resolving their issue before being told that the pill had nothing to do with it. Notably, the placebo effect was stronger with people who had a real desire to change the behaviour (within the smoking group, there was one smoker who wanted to cut down rather than quit, and so the placebo effect was less significant with him).

The placebo effect is now quite well documented, if not entirely understood. There’s a great accessible explanation of the effect in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which is well worth a read.

Watching a group who had taken a sugar pill to become more intelligent rumble Brown for providing them with fake drugs, and a man who had previously been paralysed by fear of heights standing at the edge of a bridge and looking into the valley below made me wonder about how the placebo effect played out for runners. The placebo would need to be something that both increased confidence and encouraged the brain to suppress pain (particularly for long races) in order to be optimally effective – it’s often the nagging fatigue or twinges felt during the marathon that make runners question themselves.

Of course, there are placebos for runners. To an extent, the kit a runner wears and the race-day ritual play a part in the headgame – a garish pair of shoes may feel faster than a battered pair, repeating the same processes (breakfast, gathering gels, warming up, etc.) that led you carefully through the training runs encourage you to get into the mindset of a runner. (If your training has gone well, this can help you feel empowered and ready; if your training has gone badly, it may have a more detrimental effect. There’s a whole separate post that needs to be written about the role luck plays in running and overcoming bad training runs through understanding principles behind regression to the mean.) However, the purest running placebo is the bracelets made by Trion:Z.

Trion:Z athletes – all using the brightly-coloured plastic wrist bands – include golfers, rugby players, cricketers, cyclists, skiiers and runners. The products ‘work’ by releasing negative ions, and the products are made with ‘negative ion-releasing capsules or with “Mineon Health(R) Fibers”, a unique textile with negative-ion producing minerals woven into the fabric.’ There are no specific health or performance claims made by Trion:Z, but they’ve cleverly registered a material using a name that implies some kind of health benefit. Like many good health-improvement technologies (barefoot running, anyone?), magnet therapy can be dated back thousands of years and touches such luminaries as Cleopatra (whose marathon time remains shrouded in mystery, but was widely reputed to be ‘comin at ya‘) and Cherie Blair.

But, if the product can improve athletes’ confidence, while at the same time making no specific health claims, any positive attributes (less pain experienced, heightened confidence, etc.) can be attributed to the wrist band. After all, the human mind loves causality and will happily attribute causation to unrelated factors (still reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, and it’s still excellent if you’re willing to get past the regular assumption that the reader is a middle-class American).

There is a problem with the placebo effect for runners – and endurance athletes – though. Running is very much a sport that plays by the rules of mastery – e.g. the more deliberate practice (note the distinction between willy-nilly practice (just running the same distance at the same pace) and deliberate practice (targeted at improvement)) is required to perform. Luck is a factor in training (e.g. a tempo run hampered by traffic lights and pedestrian congestion), but a marginal factor in racing (e.g. it’s bad luck to fall over in a road race, but it doesn’t happen very often), so where a placebo may benefit a sport more prone to chance – such as golf or snooker – there are fewer black swans in running. The danger is that if too much of a performance is ascribed to an unrelated factor, the runner will under-train and come spectacularly unstuck in an endurance race.

On the topic of which, Marathon Talk recently asked listeners for their worst mistakes in marathon training, and the two most common answers seemed to be underestimating the distance (being too confident) and over-training (possibly due to not being confident enough). Confidence in running, then, is something of a double-edged sword.

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