The Physical and Psychological- Impact on Limits of Performance

When I was beginning my college journey in the world of exercise physiology, VO2max was king. Stick someone on a treadmill, ramp up the pace or incline until they fell off the back of the treadmill or cried uncle and then you were given a magical number which defined your aerobic capacity. The thinking was, once you maxed out, you maxed out. So that number was relatively consistent from test to test. Your VO2max score defined you. You’d hear about Bjorn Dahlie’s record number, or Steve Prefontaine’s ridiculously high VO2max. Of course, there’d be disclaimers about the role of Running Economy, but that one number had a lot of value.

As I’ve outlined here and in my book Science of Running, there are a lot of issues with the ideas above, but one that is not discussed more, is the impact of psychology on the physiological.

A few years ago, in the exercise science lab I took a dozen college runners and put them through that same grueling VO2max test. Start off easy, then the scientists ramps up the velocity according to a set schedule up, while the athlete hopes to hold on for dear life, until they are exhausted in around 10 minutes. The machine spits out a number, we’re all good.

But there was a twist.  When we ran another VO2max test where instead of following the standard protocol we left it up to the athletes to choose their speed and how fast they ramped them up, that magical number the machine spit out at the end changed. Interestingly enough, it changed significantly for the better athletes. Those who were the conference scorers and NCAA qualifiers saw a significant bump. Their VO2max jumped when they had control.

Read those last few sentences again. The better athletes saw a significant jump when they had control. So the athletes you’d expect to be able to ‘push’ hardest regardless of the parameter, found something extra when they had control.

Why? Control plays a large role in motivation and drive. When we feel like we have control, we’re more likely to persist. A long line of research, from exercise studies to surviving as a POW, to withstanding the harsh realities of colonizing Jamestown in the 1600’s. When a perception of control fades away, we quit early, we give up. Even, as was the case in Jamestown, if giving up meant likely death.

The physiological and psychological are deeply intertwined. We know this intuitively, but we often pay it lip service. Here’s a concrete example of that impact

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  1. […] How Perceived Control Impacts the Physiological Limits of Performance […]

  2. D G Brown on August 19, 2020 at 3:31 pm

    This point was highlighted in Scientific American June 1976.

  3. Steve Palladino on August 20, 2020 at 11:25 am

    While I agree with your point on control, and appreciate the more broad coverage that you have given in other articles and books to the importance of cognitive and psychological factors in sport performance, your findings in self-selected intensity ramp vs standard protocol are not consistent with this study: I’m not sure why, and I’m not trying to diminish your point – I agree with it in general. I’m sure there are other examples.

    • stevemagness on August 20, 2020 at 12:27 pm

      Thanks. Yes, I’m aware of this study. Another study found higher VO2max in self-paced versus normal:

      As to why our study found a difference, I only can speculate based on the data. In our study, the difference came when you looked at High level vs. low level college runners. I don’t have the data in front of me, but think of it like this, those who were sub 4:10 milers compared to 4:25 milers or above. The faster runners all had significantly better performances on self-paced than the traditional. For the lower level, they trended that way, but not substantially, with 1-2 runners being lower on the self-paced than the traditional.

      Based on knowing the individuals in the study, I’d venture to guess their is an underlying psychological explanation.

    • JP on August 20, 2020 at 2:18 pm

      Palladino always out to outsmart/discredit others…Stick to powermeter-ing!

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