by Jen Jenkins, Market Analyst
By definition, the Placebo Effect is a remarkable phenomenon in which a placebo – a fake treatment using an inactive substance such as sugar, etc. – can in some cases improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will. Recent studies have investigated the power of placebos specifically in athletic performance, and this New York Times article asks, “Can a shot of salt water make you a faster runner?” The answer? Yes, why yes it can.
Previous studies have shown that lying to an athlete and telling them they are moving slower than they are will cause them to speed up past what they originally thought possible. Same with lying and telling them that the pill they just took contains caffeine or steroids when it does not. These studies, however, were never done in competitive situations. The difference between isolating a study done during training from one done during real-life competition is that most athletes are already exerting what (they believe) is their maximum physical capability during a competitive race. By testing the theory of the Placebo Effect during competition, researchers aimed to find out if this phenomenon would still apply, or if athletes were indeed at their maximum physiological ceiling.
In a study to test this, 15 male recreational runners were told they’d be given erythropoietin, or E.P.O., which increases the number of red blood cells in the human body. The runners were under the assumption that this drug would not only improve their athletic performance, but that it was also a formulation that was legal and that the amount administered would not be considered “doping.” In reality, the runners were given an injection of a saline solution. The study rotated the runners between receiving injections one week and not receiving them the next. After a few different phases, nearly unanimous results showed that the injections made training easier, recovery faster, and motivated runners to push harder. Most significantly, all the runners saw an improvement in their race by approximately 1.5 percent during a 3K race.
This is a very small study, but it does show that in this case the placebo did indeed enhance the performance of the runners, even in the most physiologically demanding circumstance such as a competition. For the everyday athlete or fitness guru, it is possible that even if you know you’re taking a placebo you may still achieve the desired effect of running faster or working out harder due to some “unconscious psychology going on.” To quote the popular Under Armour campaign: you will what you want.