Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Competitive Advantage

Competition brings out the best in us -- even when we're not conscious of it.

The brain, it appears, can kick one's body into high gear when competition calls for it. Gina Kolata explored this phenomena further in today's New York Times:
Jo Corbett, a senior lecturer in applied exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth in England, wondered how much competition can affect an athlete’s speed. To find out, he asked cyclists to ride as hard and as fast as they could on a stationary bicycle for the equivalent of 2,000 meters. As he rode, each rider was shown an on-screen figure representing the cyclist riding the course.
Then Dr. Corbett and his colleagues told each athlete that he would be racing against another rider hidden behind a screen. The researchers projected two figures on the screen, one the outline of the rider and the other the outline of the competitor.
In fact, the competitor on the screen was a computer-generated image of the athlete himself in his own best attempt to ride those 2,000 meters.
...[T]he cyclists beat their best times, finishing with a burst of speed that carried them to virtual victory by a significant length.
Dr. Corbett said the extra effort, above and beyond what the athletes had previously demonstrated, seems to come from the anaerobic energy system, one that is limited by the amount of fuel stored in muscle. The brain appears to conserve the body’s limited fuel to a certain degree, not allowing athletes to work too hard.
But in a race, he said, the brain seems to allow athletes to tap more deeply into energy stores than would ordinarily be permitted. “Competition is able to motivate you to dip further,” Dr. Corbett said.
Interesting. This may help explain how CrossFit workouts are intensified by competition. I'm not saying we should confuse training with competition, but I've certainly found that I tend to push myself harder in class at CrossFit Palo Alto than when I'm exercising by myself.

What about you? Notice any differences in your performance when working out solo versus in a crowd?