Does Competition Boost Performance?

The duel between triathlon legends Dave Scott and Mark Allen at the 1989 Ironman World Championship is remembered as one of the greatest races in the history of endurance sports. In that race the longtime rivals swam, biked, and ran neck and neck for eight full hours until, with 1.7 miles left in the 140.6-mile competition, Allen broke away from Scott on the last hill to claim his first Ironman victory after six failures and five losses to Scott.

The battle caused so much excitement as it unfolded that a caravan of trucks, cars, motorcycles, mopeds, and bikes that was almost a quarter-mile in length formed behind Scott and Allen as the rivals scorched the marathon side by side. Among those in the caravan was Bob Babbitt, the 38-year-old publisher of Competitor magazine, who dubbed the epic battle "Iron War" in the next issue of his publication. The name stuck.

What Dave Scott and Mark Allen achieved on that magical day would have been considered impossible by most people. They broke Dave Scott's 1986 course record by nearly 20 minutes. Third-place finisher Greg Welch was three miles from the finish line when Allen crossed it. And Allen and Scott's marathon times of 2:40:04 and 2:41:02 still stand as the two fastest run splits in the history of the race. (What's more, run splits included bike-run transition times in those days before chip timing. Allen and Scott's actual marathon times not including their transitions were closer to 2:38:49 and 2:39:47, respectively.)

I've had a personal fascination with Iron War ever since it happened. Last year I decided to indulge that fascination by writing a book about it. Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run has just been released by VeloPress. My goal was not just to write the definitive account of the race in its broader context of Scott and Allen's amazing rivalry and incredible careers, but to explore how they were able to achieve the impossible together on October 14, 1989.

Some of the answers I uncovered in this journey may serve as valuable lessons to other triathletes seeking their own breakthroughs. One of these lessons centers on what might be called the competition effect. When I interviewed Dave Scott for the book I asked him how much slower he thought he would have gone in the race if Mark Allen had not been there to push him. He said maybe 10 seconds. I love the spirit behind that answer, but I don't believe it!

Research in exercise science has demonstrated that human beings are able to perform at a significantly higher level in sports activities when in group situations than they can when alone. For example, in a study conducted at Arizona State University, subjects were able to lift 11 percent more weight when they conducted a maximal weightlifting test in a competitive group situation than when they were asked to perform the same test without company.

The competition effect may be even more powerful in endurance activities, where motivation and willingness to suffer play such significant roles in performance outcomes. Way back in 1968, an exercise scientist at the University of California-Berkeley asked subjects to perform a high-intensity stationary bike ride to exhaustion on two occasions: alone and in head-to-head competition with another subject of well-matched fitness. On average, the subjects were able to last 20 percent longer at the same intensity when competing than when trying as hard as they could solo.

Before the 1989 Ironman, Mark Allen announced that he intended to shadow Dave Scott throughout the entire race and then try to sprint away from him at the very end. Scott decided to counter that strategy by starting the race at an extremely aggressive pace and keeping the pressure on relentlessly until Allen cracked. These were the perfect conditions for the competition effect to be taken to its ultimate extreme. The result was the explosion of existing beliefs about the limits of endurance performance.

You can exploit the competition effect to your benefit in less dramatic ways by training in groups. Instead of swimming alone at the local YMCA, join a Masters Swimming group. Find a well-matched training partner to test yourself against on some of your weekend long runs. And instead of suffering through track workouts on your own, do them with a coached running group that's bound to have at least one member who's a step faster than you and can pull you along to a new level of performance.

Take this lesson from the greatest race ever run and I promise you will soon achieve your own triathlon breakthrough.

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Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a coach and training intelligence specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at

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