Ian O’Riordan: Psychobiological model a new way of generating improved performances

New studies suggest that fatigue can be influenced by levels of motivation as much as effort

Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto broke the world record as he won  the 41th edition of the Berlin Marathon in Berlin last September. Photo: Tobias Schwartz/Getty

Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto broke the world record as he won the 41th edition of the Berlin Marathon in Berlin last September. Photo: Tobias Schwartz/Getty

 

Con Houlihan once told me that drugs in sport would someday be considered old-fashioned. There will be a new way of improving performances: scientists and chemists will give way to psychologists.

He sat forward in his chair and talked about the man running away from a tiger being able to produce times far quicker than those on the track. “In trying to save his life he produces something extra,” he said. “You can be certain that some psychologist will discover a way of creating that.”

Maybe it’s the time of year, the memory of knocking into Con’s house in Portobello for a mug of Steinlager and a Christmas song, which got me thinking about this. Or maybe it’s all this talk of drugs in sport being more rampant than ever, when actually the performances are not improving much at all. Now, read on.

No world records were broken on the outdoor track in 2014, and only two on the field, neither of which should arouse any suspicion. At the start of the season, Renaud Lavillenie from France cleared 6.16 metres in the pole vault, breaking, at last, by the slightest permissible margin of one centimetre, the 21 year-old world record of 6.15m, which had stood to Sergey Bubka of the Ukraine, since 1993.

Lavillenie – a charismatic 28-year-old from Charente – has been the undisputed world number one in the pole vault since 2009, winning a major gold medal every season for the last five years, including the London Olympics. He competed in 22 competitions in 2014 and was beaten only once, and no one in this house raised an eyebrow when Lavillenie was named IAAF World Athlete of the Year.

World record

Anita Wlodarczyk

There was also that world record in the men’s marathon, when Dennis Kimetto ran his pretty astonishing 2:02:57 in Berlin last September. Not only had the 30 year-old Kenyan broken the existing record by the substantial margin of 26 seconds (or a second faster, for every mile), Kimetto was also the first man in history to run the distance in under two hours and three minutes.

Given the worrying number of positive doping tests coming out of Kenya in recent months there perhaps should be a little asterisk placed next to his 2:02:57, although the performance is not completely out of the ordinary: it’s the sixth time the men’s marathon world record was broken in Berlin since 2003, when fellow Kenyan Paul Tergat ran 2:04:55

Still something doesn’t add up. If, according to some of those hysterically sweeping claims, athletics is in the midst of the worst doping crisis since records began, then why aren’t more of those records being broken? Indeed nine of the 14 most prominent world records for women date back to the 1980s, when we all know there was a lot of old-fashioned drug taking going on. Usain Bolt may have rewritten sprinting records in recent years but many of the men’s world records are equally archaic.

If Russia or Kenya or anyone else for that matter is truly systematic about their doping maybe they should look up the Stasi files to learn how it’s done properly.

Or maybe drugs in sport should already be considered old-fashioned. The scientists and chemists haven’t yet given way to psychologists, although they are working with them, on the “psychobiological model” of improving performance, as neatly summarised in this week’s New Yorker magazine in an article entitled What Is Fatigue?

Exercise bike

Frontiers in Human Nueroscience

They put 13 ordinary subjects on an exercise bike and got them to pedal at a fixed pace for as long as they possibly could, while looking at a small screen. Those screens occasionally flashed an almost imperceptible image of either a happy face or a sad face: the cyclists who saw the happy faces kept going for 25 minutes and 22 seconds; the cyclists who saw the sad faces gave up three minutes earlier. Then they tried flashing up the words “Go, Lively” or else “Toil, Sleep”, and the cyclists who saw the words “Go, Lively” lasted 17 per cent longer.

Understanding athlete fatigue (defined as “the inability of the contracting muscles to maintain the desired force”) has always been one of the hot topics in sports science.

What the Bangor study suggests, and others like it, is that fatigue can be influenced by levels of motivation as much as effort, and the limits of all this are only beginning to be explored.

In basic terms it’s no different to athletes raising their game when there’s a lot of money at stake, or indeed that man running away from a tiger being able to produce times far quicker than those on the track.

Only now the psychologists are looking at very deliberate ways of creating this. One of the methods already being used is where athletes wear smart eyewear such as Google Glass, perfect for those flashing smiley faces or encouraging words or other new means of improving performance, just like what Con used to talk about, before sitting back in his chair for another gentle sip of Steinlager.

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