October 8, 2011

Head-to-head competition: It really is mind over matter

Plain and simple, I miss rowing.

I miss everything about it—the power, the swing, hearing all eight oars click at once, the passion in your coxswain's voice, eating breakfast with forty wet and exhausted friends, the sunrises, maintaining the boats, and even traipsing down to the river at 5 in the morning (once I could get my butt out of bed—yeah, I even miss that part).

But perhaps the part I miss the most is pushing my body to the limit, both in racing and erging.

My team probably doesn't miss the uncharacteristic grunts and wheezes coming from my position in 4 Seat during the final 500 meters of a 2K sprint, a result of every last cell in my body pumping out its last reserves of energy—coursing with lactic acid and pleading for mercy—as I could see our rival teams inching closer out of the corner of my eye. New research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that the ability of an athlete to pull through victoriously in such head-to-head competition really is an issue of "mind over matter."

Participants in this study completed a 2,000-meter cycling course five times. They were instructed to aim for their quickest possible times, watching their progress on a virtual racecourse. During their final trial, participants were told that they would be racing a competing cyclist behind a partition and could view their competitor's avatar on their screen. In fact, the participants were racing their own previous best time.

Out of the 14 cyclists, 12 performed significantly faster—1.7% faster—than their previous best time when they believed they were facing an opponent. Despite their exhaustion after this intense series of exercises, lead researcher Jo Corbett found that "only in the last race, when they were unknowingly competing against themselves, they were able to race even harder."

Corbett reasons that such head-to-head competition specifically provides enough motivation to instruct our brain to delve into this anaerobic energy reserve.

He explains, “Whenever you do exercise you’re likely to think ‘how much am I willing to hurt myself?’ and there’s usually a point which holds you back because you don’t want to do yourself irreparable damage. But when racing someone head-to-head the athlete’s brain can manipulate this signal and keep on going.”

Irreparable damage, eh? As a proud—albeit battered—alum of St. Mary's Crew, I can more than vouch for that.

Photos courtesy Carlos Dinares and Sport Graphics. Originally reported by Medical Xpress.

Corbett J, Barwood MJ, Ouzounoglou A, Thelwell R, & Dicks M (2011). Influence of Competition on Performance and Pacing During Cycling Exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise PMID: 21900846


  1. They would probably improve their times even if they knew they raced against themselves. If one could show them on a display their covered distance as an advancing stripe alongside another advancing stripe from their best previous time.

  2. I agree. I think that any type of challenge—intrinsic or extrinsic—would induce this drive to push them harder and come out on top. It'd be an interesting follow-up study.


I appreciate all comments and strongly encourage discussion on the topics I write about! Please be respectful to me and other readers. Spam comments will not be published.