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Training & advice

A little white lie could make you run faster

"It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ. It’s the brain.”This was the belief of Sir Roger Bannister and the evidence is growing that our bodies are capable of so much more but our brain tells us to stop before we get there.

In a recent experiment, carried out at Northumbria University, researchers asked a group of cyclists to pedal as hard as they could on a stationary bicycle for 4,000 meters. They repeated the ride later and so got an idea of what they thought their limits were.

They were then put into a race with an avatar, a figure of a cyclist on a computer screen in front them. Each rider was shown two avatars. One was himself, moving along a virtual course at the rate he was actually pedaling the stationary bicycle. The other figure was moving faster but the researchers told the cyclist that the avatar was moving at the same pace as the cyclist’s own best effort.

In fact, the second avatar was programmed to ride faster than the cyclist ever had — using 2% more power, which translates into a 1% increase in speed.

Told to race against what they thought was their own best time, the cyclists matched their avatars and so cycled significantly faster than they ever had gone before.

The researchers had tricked the cyclists into riding faster.

So what limits how fast you can run? Is it physical fatigue or is it something in the brain that tells us "enough is enough"? Is it fatigue in the muscles or is it the brain that is programmed to rein us back in if the intensity of the exercise is heading towards danger levels? Tim Noakes, professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Cape Town proposed the existence of a “central governor” in the brain, that determines our pace and effort.

It would seem that our bodies are capable of running faster than our minds would have us believe and that we have a 'reserve tank' of energy that we can tap into if we believe that we're running within our limits. Our brain, however, will have us conserve this unless we can trick it!