By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: A test designed for an elite military unit resulted in new personal bests, due to being “on camera.” It demonstrates the potential for the mind to help the body reach new limits. Training can be more effective and produce better results if it makes a conscious effort to get the “cameras rolling” even if no one is actually watching.
A central theme of mine is that sports training, including and especially endurance training, is too focused on physiology. (Why especially endurance training? The clue is in the meaning of the word endurance.)
That is not to say the improving physiology is not important.
It is to say that it impossible to become the best that you can be without also looking to improve mind as well as body.
One reason for the emphasis on physiology is due to the nature of scientific experiments. It is quite easy to do laboratory tests on how to improve, say, energy metabolism, especially if you are just working at the cellular level. Also these tests can be used for more useful endeavors than setting a new Strava personal best such as developing a drug to prevent disease. So most lab work on athletic performance tends to be physiological and much of that is a by product of other research.
It’s a lot harder to test the impact on psychological variables on sporting performance for three main reasons all linked to the fact that you can, by definition, only do these tests on humans.
One reason is that humans, being humans, will bring their own expectations to a scientific study This is most evident in the “placebo” and “experimenter” effects and it is something that affects all experiments where humans are the subjects. Many so called sports science studies are compromised because they fail to control for this. Their findings are often likely simply the result of the fact that the subjects knew they were being tested and responded accordingly.
The second is ethical. There was a time, in the recent past, when those wishing to conduct psychological experiments could get away with behavior that, today, would be impossible. The most famous example is the Milgram experiment, which looked at how far people were willing to follow the instructions of an authority figure, with frightening results.
The final reason is cost. It is hard to devise experiments that both control for the placebo effect and can be done in an ethical manner. This translates into cost and the budgets of those studying sports science are small.
So I was both fascinated and happy to find, quite by chance, an example that supports my point in a quite unexpected place. I will say now that it is not an experiment in the accepted sense, but I think it does lend strong circumstantial support.
My son enjoys climbing and through him I got to know of Magnus Midtbø, a Norwegian climber who also “enjoys” testing his physical limits.
Recently he went through a series of basic PT tests that are required of those wishing to join an elite military unit. What was especially interesting was that he was not alone, he went up against a member of the unit, named Even, who acted as a benchmark.
It was Even’s performance in these tests that was, to me, so intriguing and exciting.
There are four tests. He set a personal best in three and equalled his PB in the other.
Magnus and Even discussed the reason after the first test here
Magnus said you try harder when you know you are being watched. “We talked about this earlier, when the cameras roll you always try a little bit harder….”
For cyclists the most relevant test was the last one. It is a ramp test done on a treadmill in full military gear carrying a backpack and gun.
Discussing it in advance Magnus asked Even if he has ever gone past 30 minutes. He gets the answer no. Magnus says, “Might be the first, cameras are rolling.”
A minute or so in, when things are easy, they discuss what is to come and agree it is a test of psychology, requiring a lot of mental strength.
Magnus cracks early, not surprising given his speciality is more about short term power. But Even pushes on up to and then beyond 30 minutes, a new all time best. At the end he has, very obviously, taken himself beyond what he thought he was capable of. (I for one have never looked as bad after a workout.)
This is a Youtube video, not a scientific experiment. It does not control for the experimenter effect, but it does embrace it, pointing out at an early stage that being on camera is the reason for superlative performance.
Still, I think it helps make my case. Knowing the cameras are rolling helped push Even to a new level. If he had just done the four tests by himself in the gym would he have set his PBs? It’s impossible to say of course but I doubt it.
It also raises some thoughts.
Even stumbles at 29 minutes but managed to keep going right up to 30 minutes then cracked big time. This supports the evidence reported by Alex Hutchinson in his book “Endure” about marathon finish times that cluster around the certain key times, like every hour. What might have happened if Even had been given false time information? Say every minute he sees actually lasts 61 seconds. My guess would be that he would still have done “30 minutes” even though in reality it was a full 30s longer than he actually managed. While our physiology sets our absolute limits we rarely, if ever, actually reach those limits. If we stop short it is not due to just to our muscles but our mind listening to our muscles.
In a similar vein, I am sure that, no matter how good his performance was on this occasion Even would beat all his PBs without realising if he was ever needed to in a real combat situation.
The effect of the “cameras rolling” is really just a statement of the obvious. We all know that we do better if others are watching. However, much training is done when no one is watching. Training manuals suggest doing tests, setting zones and doing workouts based on those zones. If the tests are done without the sense of you being “on camera” then the test results will not represent your true ability, nor will the zones. If you do workouts without the sense of being “on camera” then you may be underperforming and so not progressing as fast as you could. Pro riders have many advantages over amateurs. One is that when they train they are often “on camera”, they will have coaches and DS’s constantly monitoring them and they will be competing, even in training, against their team mates for places in events.
This is why stacking can be so beneficial. Using workouts to test mind hacks and aiming to use them to rehearse reality can be a way to tackle the above.
For example, one great mind hack to try is to underreport your effort. So if your power is 300W only show 290W on the screen. Of if you are used only to looking at power look at HR instead. Often the limits of performance can be in the mind. You can kid yourself remarkably easily. Even if your conscious self knows that your display is lying to you your sub-conscious will not realise and that is all that matters since it’s your sub-conscious that calls quits.
Rehearsing reality is all about recreating the elements of competition, in whatever form, in every workout. Exactly how will vary by individual. The key thing is that you seek to find something that will make you push yourself harder. You may not be able to recreate 100% of the sense of being “on camera” but if you manage only 98% compared to 95% otherwise its an improvement.
Just knowing that someone else will see the results of your workout can be effective. Coaches can offer great advice but they can pay for themselves just by the fact that you know you will have to report back to them every time you train. Simply posting your workout results in a blog might even work. It doesn’t matter that no one will read it, it’s the fact that someone may that will push you. One reason I enjoy writing for RBR is that it makes me push harder in workouts. It’s a way, that works for me, of getting the “cameras rolling”.
I’m not suggesting live streaming every workout you do. But, that said, if you did, I would not be surprised if you ended up, like Even, going beyond your expectations.
Whatever you can do to feel the “cameras rolling” when training could well pay off and the effort needed to make it happen is so little it’s something that has to be worth trying.
(Email me on [email protected] if you want more info on this or any topic I have raised. I will get back to you, though it may take a few days.)
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.