Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Science Wire: Overthink, Underperform

As relaxed as we ultrarunners like to think we are, one doesn't have to scratch too far below the surface to reveal the empirical, detail driven core that powers the machine. It's this side of us that memorizes course profiles, calculates energy needs down to the kilojoule, and plans drop bags like NASA does lunar missions. And while it's good to be prepared, some new research out this week suggests that at a certain point all the obsessing over such details could actually hamper performance.

The study, out of Bangor University in the UK (study), found that athletes who performed a taxing mental exercise for 90 minutes before a timed cycling test performed much worse than those who did 90 minutes of a more mentally "neutral" activity (watching a documentary) before the test. Interestingly, the difference came down to simple head games. No physiological differences were actually seen between the two groups.

While the study was quite small -- as most endurance studies are -- it does help bolster the importance of coming into an event as mentally relaxed as possible. So rather than checking the contents of our drop bags for a fourth time, maybe we all should pop in that DVD of Napoleon Dynamite instead.

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