The trained bicyclists thought they had ridden as fast as they possibly could. But Kevin Thompson, head of sport and exercise science at Northumbrian University in England, wondered if they go could even faster.
So, in an unusual experiment, he tricked them.
In their laboratory, Dr. Thompson and his assistant Mark Stone had had
the cyclists pedal as hard as they could on a stationary bicycle for the
equivalent of 4,000 meters, about 2.5 miles. After they had done this
on several occasions, the cyclists thought they knew what their limits
Then Dr. Thompson asked the cyclists to race against 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 at the pace of the cyclist’s own best effort — or so the cyclists
In fact, the second avatar was programmed to ride faster than the
cyclist ever had — using 2 percent more power, which translates into a 1
percent increase in speed.
Told to race against what they thought was their own best time, the
cyclists ended up matching their avatars on their virtual rides, going
significantly faster than they ever had gone before. ...
Money, in contrast, does not increase individual performance, Dr.
Corbett said — at least, not in research experiments. Physiologists have
asked athletes to go as fast as they can on a course and then offered
money if the athletes could beat their own best times. They could not.
--Gina Kolata, NYT, on mental barriers to athletic performance. Warning: Sample size in the study is only 9 cyclists.