I found this article from the NY Times, A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit, via the Fitbomb blog. The article talks about how cyclists, when deceived into thinking they are competing against cyclists of similar speed, will go beyond their perceived limits in order to win. What’s interesting is this extra push is quantified: a 2% increase in power translates to a 1% increase in speed.
A 1% increase can translate to a massive difference in power endurance sports. In rowing, where a typical time might be 6′ over 2000 meters, 1% translates to 3.6 seconds. That margin in the rowing world is an open water win–one boat length is about 2.7 seconds for an eight-man boat. A clear and decisive victory.
In CrossFit terms, 1% can also be significant. If a WOD takes you 8′ to finish by yourself, going 1% faster means you’re posting a 7:55.2. Not a bad improvement.
I actually think the margin of improvement is MUCH higher when going against live competition than when training solo. After having spent over 15 years training and competing in power endurance sports, I’ve found it’s somewhere in the 5-10% improvement in speed. Here’s why.
In the Times article, the athletes are in a lab environment and racing against computer generated avatars–in other words, very controlled and low stakes. The article also talks about how deceiving the athlete, such as lying about the course distance, gets you the extra 1%. Under those circumstances, I think that’s about right, trickery can get you an extra 1%. When you compete for real, in a WOD or at a racecourse, you’re going against real human beings with much higher stakes. You’re also being judged on your performance and you’re on a stage. Those factors create more pressure to perform than the lab experiment.
My theory is that the brain is wired to push you into a higher gear against live competition, and that gear gets you the extra speed and power. I call that gear the sixth gear, a special zone I reserve just for competitions, regattas, and select days at the gym. I can only access my sixth gear occasionally, say once per week or throughout a weekend of competition, because it’s so taxing.
For example, we did a WOD last Friday: 1 mile run then 100 front squats, for time. Fridays are a special day at the gym because we have a 7:00 am WOD where the best guys show up for an impromptu throwdown. I was “racing” 12 other guys of roughly similar speed (some faster, some slower) and that got me to perform to my utmost potential for that particular day. My time was 13:40, which was good for a third place tie in the group.
If I perform the same WOD alone at my house, I’m going around 15:00. Maybe slower. That’s right around the 5-10% range.
The reason is this: INSPIRATION. When we compete, we’re inspired to perform at our best and push much harder than when we’re alone. There’s a definite moment of energy right before the WOD starts when you can feel yourself getting amped up for the challenge. This moment extends itself into the exercise, when your fitness and mental fortitude kicks in and drives you forward. The reason why we become addicted to CrossFit (and sports in general) is because we want to be inspired and we want the experience that goes along with performing up to our highest potential.
Inspiration is a powerful emotion and it’s something worth going to the ends of the Earth for. We look for it in our creative projects, in our relationships, in work, in sports, and everywhere in life. Inspiration is what causes buildings to get built and near impossible feats to happen.
When you see an interview with elite CrossFitters and the interviewer asks, why do you CrossFit? the typical answer is because she likes to push herself to her limits. What she actually means is she wants to be inspired with the highest possible stakes on the table. That emotion of inspiration is elusive and something we’re all wired to seek. Inspiration is the difference maker in performance.
Michelle Kinney articulates this well, see around the 3′ mark, although the whole interview is great:
My Recommendation: If you CrossFit regularly, my strongest recommendation is to sign up for a throwdown or two and test yourself. The inspiration against live competition will bring out your very best and help take your training, afterwards, to a higher level. I had this experience recently at the Summer Crush Games.
Also, don’t be afraid to suck or come in last in a competition. You’ve got to start somewhere…and you’ll always be respected for trying versus not competing at all. That’s one of the beauties of the sport.