It’s common to think of our body and mind – our physiology and psychology – as two separate entities. However, abundant evidence suggests the mind and body might be more interlaced than many assume. I think we can confidently say that the mind has a distinct ability to influence our physiology. I also think the power of placebo is still something under-appreciated and poorly understood in the athletic community. The placebo effect is much more than just an increase in feelings of self-efficacy…it really can have very relevant and potent effects on performance. In sports where a 2% difference in race times can separate the Gold medallist from 10th place…it’s something athletes need to be thinking about.
I’ll start with a story to illuminate these concepts, and then dig through some science.
An Air Force Colonel named George Hall was locked in a small dark North Vietnamese prison for seven years. While most would lose themselves in such a circumstance, Hall kept his sanity by mentally playing golf every day of his imprisonment. His visualisations were extremely detailed, including placing the ball on the tee, walking through the sand dugouts, recognising the wind, and making the final shot into the hole. At the end of the 7 years, Hall had lost 100 pounds since his capture. When asked what he would like to do upon release, he answered with “play a round of golf”. He was invited to the New Orleans Open where he shot a bewildering 76. When a member of the media accused him of “beginner’s luck”, Hall replied, “Luck? I’ve been practicing for seven years.” Despite his physical deterioration, and no actual golf practice in so long, he was clearly able to retain and improve his golfing ability through imaginings.
Cool story, but low-grade evidence. What does the actual science say? To answer this, I’m going to highlight some key studies in this area.
1. More gains if you just “think” you’re taking steroids
In this study the researchers took a bunch of college athletes and put them through a 7-week strength training program.For the next 4 weeks, the athletes continued the program but were now given pills they were told were anabolic steroids (were actually just sugar pills). If you take a look at the graphs in the study…you will see the rate of progression in strength takes an immediate and significant upward turn during these last 4 weeks compared to the first 7 (where as you would actually predict the rate of progression to decrease the longer you follow a program).So, taking something you believe to be effective, can actually translate to performance improvement…even with no physiological rationale. Who remembers Space Jam? Bugs gives the Tune Squad a sip of “Michael’s Secret Stuff” (which was just water) and they end up coming out at half time and dominating. The power of placebo to unlock a “super potential” we didn’t know we have….is intriguing to say the least.
2. Kinesio tape. Physiology Vs Psychology
You might remember at the 2012 London Olympics we saw this massive trend of athletes strapping up with colourful Kinesio tape. Supposedly, Kinesio tape alleviates discomfort and facilitates lymphatic drainage by microscopically lifting the skin. More effective blood flow, a decrease in inflammation, and performance improvement are also claimed.From the conclusion in the abstract, “The application of KT on thigh muscles attenuated the performance decrease that occurred after 30 minutes of rest between the 2 sets compared with the no KT condition. This finding suggests athletes may use KT to better manage their performance during delays in competition events.”The PubMed warriors read this, and then they are straight out taping up in KT like they’re a Christmas present.Here’s the problem, when actually reading the study you’ll see that yes KT maintained performance better than no KT – BUT – KT was no better than a sham group of horizontal taping (basically a strap of sticky tape). So, the benefits of the KT are only really coming from a placebo effect, regardless of whether it’s KT or a bit of sticky tape, it’s just the feeling of having something taped that’s providing a benefit based on the athlete’s belief in the treatment/product. A great example of the mind having a direct impact on physiology and performance. If the athletes were informed that KT does nothing for performance, it’s more than likely we’d see no difference between KT and no-KT groups.
3. Drinking a coloured drink with no active ingredients improved sprint time in elite sprinters!
This study is a firecracker. The researchers had three groups of sprinters with the same sprint times at baseline. Then, they gave them all the same inert green drink (just water, flavour and colour) 20min before a sprint test. They told one group that it was an energy drink that improves performance. They told the second group that it may or may not improve performance. And, they told the third group that the research showed the drink didn’t improve performance at all.What happened next is kind of crazy. The group who were told they were taking a performance-enhancing energy drink significantly improved their sprint time by 2.4s, while the other two groups had no significant change.
4. Swearing is performance enhancing?
Finally, this new study showed that strength (hand grip) and power (Wingate) efforts are improved following swearing versus no swearing. One might assume that the performance benefits came from cardiovascular or nervous system stimulation…but this wasn’t the case. So, the mechanism behind the results is unclear. Again, an example of an unknown component of psychological disturbance which is translating to an observable, measurable physiological impact.
So, in closing, the connection between our mind and body can certainly act in our favour (or detriment) depending on our perception of a situation. Understanding this is paramount for any athlete.
Yours in mindfulness and gains,
Triple P (The People Punching Peacock)