Does Science Prove That Competition Improves Performance?

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Corbett et al. 2012

The setup was relatively simple: have cyclists think they're competing against someone else on a Velotron (CompuTrainer) ergometer, when in fact they're actually racing against themselves and their best solo TT performance. Do they go faster or slower when going solo or racing themselves?

  • 14 regular recreational athletes, although a potential weakness of the paper was that the study did not target recruiting trained or elite cyclists.
  • Subjects did, however, perform three full familiarization sessions of the test protocol, consisting of a 2,000 meter time trial on a Velotron ergometer with a flat course.
  • For all sessions, subjects were tasked with riding as fast as possible, with no guide toward any pacing strategy. While they could see their avatar on the virtual software, they received no performance feedback (time, wattage, HR, etc.) throughout the test. No verbal encouragement was provided.
  • The two actual test sessions involved either doing the TT solo (essentially identical to the familiarization trials), or else head to head (HH).
  • For the HH, subjects were told that they would be competing head to head against another subject of similar ability in another room. They could see both avatars and also the distance remaining. In reality, the competitor on the screen was their own best performance during the three familarization trials.
  • Oxygen uptake and respiratory exchange ratio (carbon dioxide production divided by oxygen uptake, a general measure of energy source) were measured. Data was mainly "binned" into 8x250 meter intervals for analyzing pacing strategy.

Race Results

So when push came to shove, did the subjects compete better solo or head to head? Not surprisingly, competition, even if it was against themselves, brought out the best performance.

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  • I noted a potential criticism about the non-cycling specific subjects. Good for the authors, they reported that the three familiarization trials were essentially identical in performance time, with a coefficient of variation (a measure of the variability between two repeated trials) of 1.1 and 0.8% between Trials 1 and 2, and 2 and 3, respectively. This would suggest that any difference in the solo versus head-to-head wouldn't be from a learning effect.
  • The time trial times for the best familiarization, solo, and head to head trials were 187.7 +/- 8.2, 188.3 +/- 9.5,and 184.6 +/- 6.2 s, respectively, with the head to head trial significantly faster than the best familiarization or solo conditions.
  • During the head to head trial, 12 out of 14 subjects were able to beat their competitors (best familiarization effort). The two "losers" lost by only 0.06 and 0.01 seconds, pretty much a tie.
  • Blood lactate values at the end of the time trial were similar amongst all trials.
  • Pacing strategy solo versus head to head is difficult to compare due to the presence of a competitor. However, comparing the familiarization to head to head, the tendency was that the first 1000 meters were similar, but a higher power was maintained from 1000-1750 meters.
  • With energy source, the aerobic contribution were similar, and it appeared that most of the difference was due to a higher anaerobic contribution in head to head. This suggests that, when racing, you are better able to tap into a central physiological reserve that we all have, because your brain is willing to let your body work harder.
  • Racing to Train or Train to Race?

    I found this study interesting because it provides solid scientific evidence for something that we intuitively know but haven't really tested before. You can train to race, but in many ways, racing really is the best form of training because it can typically push you much further than you're willing to do by yourself. The biggest message to take, therefore, is to NOT be afraid that racing will somehow ruin your "perfect" training plan. Indeed, as long as you plan it properly, it's the best type of training you can do.

    More: Race Strategies for Breaking Away

    Race to Train

    One way of doing intervals is essentially to replicate what was done in this study. Find a like-minded partner and do intervals together in a head-to-head setting, and put something on the line (e.g. who buys the coffee).

    A team time trial effort, a smoothly rotating paceline with the hammer down, or a group ride where each takes long steady pulls are all good ways of incorporating group efforts with very solid training and minimal mental effort compared to doing it solo.

    If you're actually in a race that you're using to train, have a clear plan for what you want to accomplish! It can range from getting a long, hard, but steady ride in the pack, working on positioning, pre-planning some crazy attack, or just generally trying to win without caring to win.

    Remember that racing is typically going to be a much harder training stress than going solo. Therefore, make sure that you plan your recovery and your periodization around it properly.

    More: Determining Your Race Recovery Time

    Above all, even if you never intend to enter a competitive event, group rides can be great training and great fun, so join the peloton!

    References: Corbett J, Barwood MJ, Ouzounoglou A, Thelwell R, Dicks M (2012) Influence of Competition on Performance and Pacing during Cycling Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44: 509-515.

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