People Who Think They’re Taking EPO Run Faster

“MIND IS EVERYTHING. Muscle, pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind,” said nine-time Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi.

The Flying Finn would likely love the latest evidence of the crucial role of psychology in running: In a study that will be published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, runners who thought they were taking the performance-enhancing drug EPO ran about three seconds per kilometre faster in a 3K race, even though they were injecting themselves with a placebo.

Scottish researchers gathered 15 recreational male runners who had an average 10K personal best of around 39:15. Over a few weeks, the men ran a series of 3K races on an indoor 200-metre track. During one week of the study, the men did daily self-injections of a substance they were told was called OxyRBX, which was said to contain small amounts of EPO, a blood booster that increases endurance potential. In reality, the men were injecting a saline solution, which has no performance-enhancing qualities.

In the race at the end of the week in which they thought they were taking EPO, the men finished the 3K race an average of 9.73 seconds, or about three seconds a kilometre, faster. This 1.2 per cent improvement “is statistically significant, physiologically relevant and of clear importance in a competitive sporting setting,” the researchers wrote. “To put these results into context, in the 2012 Olympics the difference between the gold medal and fourth place was less than one per cent in all track events from 1500 metres to 10,000 metres for both men and women.”

Further adding to the intriguing result is that how much faster the men raced when they thought they were doping varied by how much of a boost they thought they’d get from the injections.

“Almost all of those who recorded a marked improvement… had expected they would see positive changes when ‘taking OxyRBX,’” the researchers wrote. “Amongst those whose performance improved less markedly, expectations tended to be more measured. Some admitted they had not anticipated any changes from ‘taking OxyRBX.’”

On average, the runners reported lower perceived effort during the race that followed their week of would-be doping. At the same time, “participants commonly reported pushing
themselves harder during the races at the end of the [‘doping’] week,” the researchers wrote. “This may be related to the effect of placebo on perceived ability – a number of participants also reported increased confidence in their ability after taking placebo – which has been shown to increase willingness to exert effort in challenging tasks.”

That last sentence is key in considering the broader potential ramifications of this research. Adding a new element to your program that you sincerely believe will improve your running can be a self-fulfilling practice. Telling yourself that a weekly hill workout, or regular core training, or running at least one mile every day this month will pay big benefits can produce a positive feedback loop of motivation, confidence and results.

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