I miss rowing for my college crew team.

Conversely, my poor teammates probably don't miss the uncharacteristic grunts and wheezes coming from my position in 4 Seat during the final 500 meters of a 2K sprint, a result of every last cell in my body pumping out its last reserves of energy—coursing with lactic acid and pleading for mercy—as I could see our rival teams inching closer out of the corner of my eye.

Research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that the ability of an athlete to pull through victoriously in such head-to-head competition really is an issue of "mind over matter."

Participants in this study completed a 2,000-meter cycling course five times. They were instructed to aim for their quickest possible times, watching their progress on a virtual racecourse. During their final trial, participants were told that they would be racing a competing cyclist behind a partition and could view their competitor's avatar on their screen. In fact, the participants were racing their own previous best time.

Out of the 14 cyclists, 12 performed significantly faster—1.7% faster—than their previous best time when they believed they were facing an opponent. Despite their exhaustion after this intense series of exercises, lead researcher Jo Corbett found that "only in the last race, when they were unknowingly competing against themselves, they were able to race even harder."

Corbett reasons that such head-to-head competition specifically provides enough motivation to instruct our brain to delve into this anaerobic energy reserve.

He explains, “Whenever you do exercise you’re likely to think ‘how much am I willing to hurt myself?’ and there’s usually a point which holds you back because you don’t want to do yourself irreparable damage. But when racing someone head-to-head the athlete’s brain can manipulate this signal and keep on going.”

Irreparable damage, eh? As a proud—albeit battered—alum of St. Mary's Crew, I can more than vouch for that.

Corbett J, Barwood MJ, Ouzounoglou A, Thelwell R, & Dicks M (2011). Influence of Competition on Performance and Pacing During Cycling Exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise PMID: 21900846

Recent Posts in Brain Babble

Can Orange Glasses Improve Sleep Quality? Testing it Out

Can "blue-blockers" really promote sleep? Only one way to find out...

Why Does Game of Thrones' Hodor Only Say "Hodor"?

There's a neurological explanation behind why Hodor only says one word.

When it Comes to Color, Men & Women Aren't Seeing Eye to Eye

How does the brain's wiring affect men and women's perception of color?

The House of Cards Characters Have Terrible Sleep Hygiene

If Frank Underwood has trouble sleeping, it's not because of his conscience.

This is Your Brain When You Give Up Sugar For Lent

If you've given up sweets for Lent, you may have to go through withdrawal first.

This Is How the Brain Filters Out Unimportant Details

We're bombarded by neural input from our environment. How is most of it ignored?