Can the Placebo Effect Enhance Athletic Performance?

The placebo effect has been looked down on, scoffed at, and written off as useless because it is “all in your head.” But lately there has been a shift in that thinking, and we are starting to see the power that the placebo holds in athletic performance.

Brock Armstrong
8-minute read
Episode #384

This is also true in sports supplementation and I can tell you many stories of athletes I know popping all kinds of fringe supplements before a big race to (hopefully) get a boost in performance. And you know what? I don’t stop them. As long as there is no danger (other than creating expensive urine) I let them believe because, like the cyclists in the earlier study, it just might work.

Those lifters still lifted heavier weights than they previously had lifted. Even though they were told it was a placebo.

This idea of self-placebo-ing was also demonstrated in a weightlifting study called Expectancy Effects and Strength Training. This study tested the theory on competitive powerlifters by having them take a placebo (sugar pill) a few hours before a weightlifting session. And sure enough, the first group of powerlifters who were told the pill was a steroid went on to lift 4% heavier weights than they usually do.

Then there was a second group who, just like the migraine sufferers, were actually told that they were receiving a placebo. Those lifters still lifted heavier weights than they previously had lifted. Even though they were told it was a placebo.

Now part of my brain thinks: OK, maybe the second group didn’t believe the researchers and thought they were getting fooled into thinking the pill wasn’t going to help them, in some sort of scientific sleight of hand. But this thought is put to rest when we take into account that all the lifters had prior knowledge of how steroids work and that any steroids would take weeks to add any strength or muscle to their body. They all knew that taking any type of steroid just a few hours before a session would have pretty much no effect. And yet, they still performed better.

Believe the Hype

There is an old saying that mathematicians don’t play the lottery because they know the odds of winning are terrible. But sociologists say that the pleasure people get from simply imagining what they would do with all their lottery winnings is worth the price of the ticket. So, even if the majority of the supplements, drinks, injections and crazy devices don’t “work” they are still worth the price of the ticket.

Again, to continue with the lottery analogy, the advertisements for the various lotteries are so enticing, convincing, and pleasant that we can’t help but want to believe or buy into the hype. Well, the hype around the supplements, shoes, recovery tools and other whatnot is equally convincing and exciting and the more hype that we believe, the more gains we will actually experience—placebo or not.

This reminds me of a story that I recently heard runner and sports writer Alex Hutchinson tell, which falls into this same deceptive category. Alex told us that as a college junior, he had been stuck running at 4:01 to 4:02 for 1,500 meters for a couple of years. Then suddenly he ran 3:52 at a small track meet in the Canadian province of Quebec.

He attributes this sudden success in part to his mid-race splits being shouted to him incorrectly and several seconds off what he was really running (perhaps because of the bilingual nature of the part of Canada he was racing in). This error led him to believe that he was running faster than he really was, and after reconciling that pace with his feeling of exertion he was able to dig deeper than he normally would have for the remainder of the race.

In the next two races after that, he continued to get faster and ran 3:49 and then 3:44. Alex said that he has been a believer in the mind’s role in endurance sports ever since. And I take this as a sign that a placebo can come in more than pill, injection, or beverage form. It can even be shouted at you in a Québécois accent.

Is There Any Harm to Placebos?

One man’s placebo is another man’s positive outcome.

My takeaway from all this is that we shouldn’t look down on placebos. As long as the risk of taking them is acceptably low, writing them off as a trick or something fake is truly selling them short. They are as powerful as we need them to be and again, as Alex Hutchinson said in an interview for the podcast Endurance Planet, “one man’s placebo is another man’s positive outcome.”

Whether it is telling our training partner that she will get much faster if she starts doing these cutting edge running drills or allowing ourselves to believe the hype around those new compression pants you've seen all over the internet, the placebo effect can indeed give you an edge. If you can crack the code, there is research showing it can increase our performance between 4-20%. And that is true even if we know it is a placebo.

Finally, if you do find yourself believing the hype around a vitamin, a device, or a cool new piece of gear, perhaps you don’t need to find every shred of scientific evidence to support it before making the purchase. Whether it turns out to be the purchase itself or the placebo effect that is giving you the edge, it is likely worth the price of the ticket.

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About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.