Ah, the placebo effect. It’s that tricky little seemingly psychological effect that causes completely useless things to appear effective. It’s typically defined as a measurable or observable improvement not attributable to an intervention. If we frame it within running, I’m going to give it a slightly different definition:
A noticeable improvement in performance that is not the result of training, gear, or other external “stuff.”
In my last post, I talked about the need to experiment to determine what works best for yourself as an individual. The placebo effect creeps into the discussion because sometimes we may think something improves our performance. In reality, it may have no effect on performance. Should the placebo effect be a consideration?
Here’s an example:
Let’s say I was wandering through the mall. I stop at a small kiosk selling magnetic bracelets. The salesperson, sensing my interest, explains the “science” behind magnets and the correlation with improved performance. I believe the message and buy the bracelet.
The next time I go for a run, I wear the bracelet. I sincerely believe it will improve my performance. The run goes great, thus confirming my belief in the bracelet. From that point forward, my performance actually improves.
One day, I forget the bracelet. My performance nosedives and I have a terrible run.
Unless I’m missing some major study, the supposed effects of magnets has been thoroughly debunked. There is no reason the magnetic bracelet will improve my performance. My actual improvement would then be attributed to the placebo effect.
The question: How does this factor into our attempts to improve our own performance via self-experimentation?
I have no good answer… I really want to hear your opinions.
If I really were using the previously-mentioned bracelet and came across the debunking data, would I continue to use it? After all, my performance did increase while wearing it. The performance increase was a function of my brain. Either the belief in the bracelet allowed me to push through some previous barrier or the belief caused my brain to produce some actual physiological change that made me a better runner.
As we test new ideas, we’ll find some that work very well. We’ll also find many that are abysmal failures. How skeptical should we be of those that work very well?
Here’s a real-life example. Based on our best data, it is assumed humans can process somewhere between 200-300 calories per hour during exercise. When running an ultra, this is the amount most people eat to delay glycogen depletion. I routinely consume close to 500 calories per hour without problem. That shouldn’t be possible, but I do it. Is it just possible that I have a significantly greater ability to digest food? Or is this in some way a weird placebo effect based on my belief that I have a greater-than-normal ability? Through experimentation, I figured out what works best for me. However, should I continue to experiment with consuming less? How skeptical of my own experimentation should I be? Does it even matter?
What are your thoughts on the placebo effect and self-experimentation?
Sidebar- Shelly and I are off to Seattle today! We’ll be at the OutdoorFest at Magnuson Park on Saturday. We’ll be mingling at the start of the race around 8:15, then holding a clinic in conjunction with Merrell from 12:00-1:00. If you’re in the area, check it out!