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Running and the Placebo Effect

Posted by on Sep 15, 2011 | 10 Comments

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!



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  1. Richard
    September 16, 2011

    The Biomechanics of barefoot running and more to the point footwear used for running is hard science. You can’t argue with the laws of Physics.

  2. Richard
    September 16, 2011

    Here’s something worth thinking about. What is the oldest and one of the most powerful medicines or healing therapy, being used by Medical practitioners all over the world, from Professors right down to Witch Doctors. It has the power to heal some of man kinds worst afflictions.
    It’s placebo of course! In non-believing westerners it accounts for about 30% of therapeutic effect, most medical researchers don’t look for too much more than that to say their treatment is a success.
    If you are a believer, the Witch Doctor can point his bone at you, and a few days later your dead. It doesn’t get any more powerful than that.
    Personally I think you are really talking about false assumptions, research is full of that.

    • Tyro
      September 17, 2011

      It has the power to heal some of man kinds worst afflictions.

      All good studies have confirmed that the placebo effect may impact perceptions but the underlying symptoms and disorders are not impacted. Changing our mood or reducing our perception of pain may be useful, but it isn’t healing. The Science-Based Medicine blog regularly dissects studies on this, if you’re interested. A recent one covered the placebo effect and asthma which was excellent – patients thought they were improving when taking a placebo even though their airways were constricting. In this case, the placebo effect was risking their lives.

      That is ultimately the big danger with these types of treatments. At best we will get better on our own (like chicken soup for the flue) and the pill does nothing. Other times we can be tricked into believing we’re improving when we’re actually getting worse.

      In non-believing westerners it accounts for about 30% of therapeutic effect, most medical researchers don’t look for too much more than that to say their treatment is a success.

      On the contrary, for drugs to be approved and treatments to be adopted, they must provide significant non-therapeutic benefits.

  3. Mark Lofquist
    September 16, 2011

    Self-experimentation is like a “n=1clinical trial”. In mathematics, there’s an infinite number of lines that you can draw through one point. If you have two points you can draw one line but an infinite number of curves. 3 points, one line, one curve, infinite extrapolations. In other words you have the luxury of interpreting data anyway you want. Humans have a silly ability of thinking they can see trends or even causality when there ain’t-none.

    A runner will change 15 parameters and perform better and single out one cause for their improved performance. Realizing you ‘don’t get it’ is a helpful step. Our performance goes up and down and it’s the average that is somewhat of a constant.

    Example: military pilots have good and bad days after a bad day you yell at them and their next day is better. Conversely, a pilot has a good day you commend him and the next day is worse. Conclusion? Complimenting hurts, berating helps? or the average is preserved?

    Bernd Heinrich (author why we run) just drank cranberry juice and got world record in 100k. He trained that way and applied some science(biology).

    I feel we should just follow common sense and have fun. If you feel good during an ultra…. Don’t worry, it will pass. 🙂

  4. Tyro
    September 15, 2011

    The question of what happens when we believe things that are contradicted by studies comes up occasionally in sports. At the benign end are the ones that merely cost us money and make us look a little foolish, like Powerband bracelets or magnets. Some may not harm us but have other costs like shark collagen supplements which are wiping out sharks to provide us with no benefits or worse, so-called “medicines” made from endangered animals which are leading to the extinction of rhinos and some bears. In some cases we can actually be harmed. For runners specifically, eating too much can be neutral (as it seems in your case) but can lead to digestive problems, discomfort and vomiting in others. Taking pain killers, vitamins or minerals can be neutral (unless you’re deficient which is rare) but it can lead to discomfort or even organ failure in extreme cases.

    When there is little-to-no potential benefit and real risks, it simply isn’t appropriate to encourage people to try it out for themselves. As communicators, I think we owe it to ourselves to be sceptical about these claims and remember that it is very easy for us to be fooled (just look at the list above).

    There is some room for individual trials however, such as when we’re deciding between several similar options and have to decide which we prefer. For instance, I find some brands of gel makes me feel sick and so stick only with my favourite. As a rule of thumb for myself, if I can be totally honest about the alternatives then I’m okay. On the one hand we have companies like Powerband which only “work” through deceit and misdirection; on the other we have Gu vs Powerbar or Merrell vs New Balance, where competition only thrives on openness and honesty.

    How many homeopathic flu pills would be sold if the label had to say “contains no medicinal ingredients of any kind”, “contains only water” and “effects are no better than a sugar pill”? There are some things which can only sell if people are ignorant. I personally do not want any part of that.

  5. Matt
    September 15, 2011

    I looked on the OutdoorFest website and the schedule ( ) has the “Merrell Bareform Barefoot Running Clinic” from 11-12 in Cascade Room C. Is that where you’ll be?

  6. Wiglaf
    September 15, 2011

    Ah. The Observer’s Paradox is even more complex when you’re observing yourself. Maybe you can get Shelly to perform experiments on you without your knowledge…kind of like slipping poison into your drink only it’s good stuff for racing. 😉

    I suppose this is why we take others’ raving recommendations of how something work’s really well for them with a healthy dose of skepticism.

  7. briderdt
    September 15, 2011

    I remember reading an article on various training methods in a cycling magazine (VeloNews, I think it was), and the end-conclusion was that it really didn’t matter which method was used, the key element was the belief that the method worked.

    The fact is, most training methods, as long as they cover the basics, will work. Just stick with it, be consistent, progress slowly within your ability to recover, and improvement will happen. But if you don’t believe in it, come race day, your brain is going to sabotage those efforts.

  8. Dave
    September 15, 2011

    In a way, our own assessment of our self-experimentation ability might be a placebo. With the exception of the truly educated runners, many of us are really just making this up as we go along taking tips and tricks from different sources. It is true that as we increase our mental and physical efforts we will become better runners, but perhaps there is a placebo effect layered on top of that. We believe we are better than we really are because we are trying so hard to be better that we used to be. In effect, we perform better than the efforts themselves would scientifically produce.

  9. Dustin
    September 15, 2011

    if a placebo contributes to your positive mental state and is something that does not cause harm (like the bracelet), why not just keep it in use? After all, isn’t part of the self experimentation finding out what keeps your brain happy as well as your body? People have been using their own types of lucky rabbit’s feet forever.