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Why bad news can lead to good running results

After a group of cyclists were told they scored poorly on an IQ test, they worked harder in an endurance test

Have you ever received disappointing news or had a tough day and then worked out, only to find that your workout went extremely well? A 2020 study out of the Journal of Sport Exercise and Physiology suggests that isn’t just a coincidence. Researchers studied 27 men and gave half of the participants some low-stakes bad news before the endurance portion of their test. The results showed that this group worked harder following the bad news. 

The test consisted of two parts: first, participants completed a fake IQ test, and then they rode a bicycle for 30 minutes. Before the bike ride, half of the subjects were told that they’d scored poorly on the IQ test, and the other half wasn’t given their results. Following their bogus IQ test, both groups were asked to maintain a consistent cadence while cycling for 30 minutes. Without any feedback from the bike itself, the group that was given their (fudged) poor results worked harder than the group that wasn’t told anything about their scores. 

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Why did one group pedal harder?

Neither group was able to see cadence after 10 minutes on the bike (the first 10 minutes was a calibration period), so the group that pedalled harder wasn’t even aware they were doing more work. Further, those pedalling harder were actually doing a poor job at the second test as well, as they were told to maintain a specific cadence, rather than to work as hard as possible. 

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Researchers suggest their findings are consistent with social-preservation theory. This means that because the subjects felt threatened, they released the stress hormone cortisol. This release prepares the body for action by increasing the available levels of glucose in the bloodstream.

Why does this matter for runners?

These findings are significant for runners because an endurance workout is prescribed in a similar way to this study  – a coach will give you a workout with a set pace, and you’re to complete it. If you’re upset about something, there’s a strong probability that you’ll work harder than the prescribed pace.

If you overdo a workout occasionally, it’s not a problem (everyone’s worked a little too hard at practice before). But if you’re struggling emotionally for a prolonged period of time, a few days of workouts that are above your threshold can cause an injury. 

OFSAA 2019. Photo: Maxine Gravina

Researchers suggest this study is of particular importance for coaches working with younger athletes, especially those who coach at the university or college level. It serves as a reminder that performance is so much more than you body’s physical output, and that emotional health is key for success.

How bad news can be harnessed for good

While runners don’t want to be working out in a highly emotional state on the regular, it turns out that bad news can become a good race if the timing lines up. If you find yourself upset on the start line, remember to turn that negative energy into killer endurance. You might pleasantly surprise yourself. 

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