The Power of the Placebo Effect as a Performance Boost

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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The Power of the Placebo Effect as a Performance Boost

The mind is a powerful tool. That’s why the most current athletic research hasn’t been focusing as much on the legs as it’s been on the brain. If you think about it, our brain is sending the signals to our legs, so if we can train it to perform at its best, we can be unstoppable. Our brains can also lie to us and trick us — but sometimes, for our own good. If we believe something is working — swigging beet juice supplements pre-race or a new training regimen guaranteed to make us 5% faster, for example — then we’re more likely to actually hit that new goal, even if the supplement or training plan does nothing. This is the power of the placebo effect.


Science bears this out. In May, a study looked at the effect of caffeine on cyclists. There were three groups: a control group, a placebo group and a caffeine-supplement group. In a time-trial, the caffeine-dosed subjects performed better than both other groups, but, interestingly, the placebo group also outperformed the control group by a significant amount.

In 2006, a similar study merely told cyclists they were being given caffeine, while others were not. Once again, the cyclists who thought they were being caffeinated did significantly better, leading researchers to conclude the placebo effect was alive and well with athletes.

Another study looked at high-performance gear versus generic sporting goods. The result? Stick a performance-oriented brand on a golf club, and people’s swings will improve. “People who are inexperienced have more self-doubts and performance anxiety that the brand helps to alleviate, whereas experts already have high task-specific self-esteem and low performance anxiety when undertaking the task,”  lead researcher Frank Germann said.


There’s definitely something to the whole mind over matter thing. But will the placebo effect still work if we know that we’re essentially “placebo effect-ing” ourselves? Sports consultant Traci Stanard says absolutely. “That’s actually how visualization works,” she explains. “Really, it’s your go-to thought. If you think the beet juice is working, if you feel like you take it and have energy, you’re instilling that thought into your mind. Then, you automatically go there.”


In April, a study looked at how the placebo effect can mend a broken heart: Basically, as long as someone thought he was doing something to feel better and heal, he would actually heal and begin to feel better. The method itself didn’t matter, it was the idea of forward motion and taking action. “It’s about comfort,” Stanard says. “It’s about finding your groove, and if you find something that puts you back into it — even if you intellectually realize that something isn’t scientifically proven, if it feels like it’s working for you, then it is.”

“In some cases, that’s stronger than some more scientific interventions,” she adds. “Our brains are so, so strong. If you can convince yourself that something works, it’s not placebo, it’s real because it works. But you have to trust that it will work, and it needs to be something simple that you’re comfortable with.” So what works for someone else might not work for you: Just because one pro swears by beet juice, if you hate the taste or it gives you diarrhea, it’s not going to have a positive effect for you.

“If you have these things, these rituals, I think there’s an impact that they have. It gives you a focus point,” she adds.

Even if you know your ritual of downing a decaf shot of coffee the night before a race won’t really impact your performance, creating that ritual — if you truly believe it’s good for you — might just do the trick.

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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