The power of competition: harness it in training!

Andrew Hamilton looks at recent research suggesting that athletes should use some competition in training – as well as in racing!

Despite the well established health and well-being benefits that exercise brings, it can sometimes hard to stay motivated and put in quality training sessions, especially if you have to train on your own most of the time. It’s true that the use of GPS/computer devices can be extremely useful in monitoring, recording and feeding back your effort. However, a significant body of research suggests that when it comes to getting really fired up to work hard, athletes could be better off tapping into their natural competitive instinct, because by doing that, it’s possible to work harder for less perceived effort.

Virtual competition

A number of previous studies looking into competition and performance have shown that the presence of a competitor (ie being in a race situation) can improve performance. But does a competitor have to be real, or will a ‘virtual substitute’ do? To try and answer this question, a group of British scientists investigated the physiological and psychological influences of a ‘visual avatar’ competitor (ie simulating a virtual race) during a 16.1-km cycling time trial performance, using trained, competitive cyclists(1).

To achieve this, fifteen subjects completed an initial familiarisation trial, then three further 16.1km cycling time trials on a cycle ergometer. These consisted of the following:

  • *A trial with no visual display.
  • *A trial using a visual display of just themselves as a simulated avatar.
  • *A trial using themselves and an opponent as simulated avatars (competitive).

In the trial where the cyclists saw avatars of themselves and an opponent, they were told that the competitive avatar was a similar ability cyclist. However, that avatar was actually a representation of their fastest previous performance over that distance – ie the cyclists were actually (and unknowingly) racing against themselves. As well as the cyclists’ performances, the researchers also assessed the levels of perceived exertion and something called ‘internal attentional focus’ during the trial – basically, how focussed the cyclists were on things like their subjective feelings and sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc.

The results showed that in the ‘competitive’ trial (ie where they rode against what they thought was a similar-ability cyclist), performances were significantly improved; in the competitive trial, the cyclists averaged 27.8 minutes whereas in the self-avatar and no-visual dispaly trials, they managed only 28.7 and 28.4 minutes respectively. And while the cyclists sustained greater power outputs and heart rates during the competitive trial, the perceived rate of exertion was no different – ie they had worked harder and produced a higher power output, while experiencing the same effort level.

When the researchers analysed the attentional focus questionnaires, they found that the cyclists’ internal attentional focus was significantly reduced during the competitive trial – almost certainly due to the greater external distraction of a ‘competitor’ – and it was this that enabled them to work harder without any increase in perceived effort. This ties in neatly with research into music and sport; studies using a wide range of sports have produced very strong evidence that not only can music can divert your attention from the sensations of effort and fatigue, the synchronisation of movement with music in sports such as running leads to greater endurance and movement efficiency(2).

Muscle power and competition

In another study on the performance effects of riding against a virtual competitor, researchers sought to explore more about the physiology of the muscles with and without a competitive avatar(3). Using a similar format as above, 12 trained cyclists completed two 4km time trials on separate occasions on a Velotron cycling ergometer. On one occasion they rode alone while on the other, they competed against a virtual opponent.

As well as time-trial times and perceived exertion, the researchers also measured ‘before and after’ muscle contraction performance – both the maximum force the cyclists could generate and that maximum force that could be evoked by electrical stimulation. Like the study above, the results showed that the cyclists completed the time trial faster when they raced against an avatar, managing an average power output of 289.6 watts, compared to 272.2 watts with no avatar – yet their perceived exertion remained the same. Particularly notable was that the pace in the first section of the time trial was significantly faster when racing against the avatar. Measurements also showed that the cyclists’ muscles had worked harder in the competitive trial; there was a much bigger pre to post decline in both voluntary and evoked contraction force compared to the no avatar trial. The researchers concluded that their results highlighted the importance of human-environment interactions (in addition to an athlete’s internal state) for pacing regulation and performance.

Avatars, competition and pacing

To further highlight the influence of a competitor (real or virtual) on pacing and performance, another study makes for fascinating reading. In this study, UK scientists from the University of Essex sought to explore how athletes responded in terms of pacing to an opponent being present/not present, and when they were present, the different behaviors of that opponent(4).

To do this, 12 moderately to highly physically active participants with at least two years of cycling experience completed four separate 4-km time trials on a Velotron cycle ergometer:

  1. A familiarization time trial.
  2. A time trial with no opponent.
  3. A time trial with a virtual opponent who started slower and finished faster compared to trial #1.
  4. A time trial with a virtual opponent who started faster and finished slower compared to trial #1.

The first finding was that the cyclists rode significantly faster when they rode against a virtual competitor – regardless of the competitor’s pacing strategy. When there was no competitor, the cyclists adopted a less aggressive starting strategy for the first 1km. Against a competitor, the cyclists adopted a faster starting strategy, regardless of the competitor’s pace. However, this was more noticeable when the competitor employed a fast start, and led to the cyclists averaging a significantly higher output over the first 750m of the time trial.

Practical implications for cyclists and other athletes

It’s perhaps not unexpected that the cyclists (and other athletes) worked harder when given competitive cues to spur them on. What is surprising however is that in all these studies, the participants experienced no increased levels of perceived effort compared time trials where they rode significantly slower and where muscles were undergoing more strenuous work.

These studies also underline just how important the ‘internal distraction’ effects of competition are – not just in terms of perceived exertion, but also on pacing strategy. In theory, racing against an avatar in a lab setting shouldn’t significantly impact an experienced cyclist’s well-practised pacing strategy, but it did! This suggests that any pacing strategy should not be rigid, but incorporate a degree of flexibility to allow for the inevitable athlete-competitor-environment interactions, which occur in almost all race situations.

The implications that follow are that you should consider scheduling in some regular (but not too frequent) training with buddies of similar ability where you can ‘spur each other on’. This will enable you to undertake harder sessions with less perceived effort – a real plus! Another implication is that any pacing strategy you devise should take into account that in a race situation, you are likely to start faster and harder than your pre-planned targets. Practising fast starts (above your target pace) in simulated races could offer a tactical and psychological advantage! Finally athletes should consider using music (another form of internal attentional distraction) to help motivate and get through harder training sessions such as intervals. However, you shouldn’t try and ‘win’ every training session – you’ll end up exhausted and your motivation/fitness will suffer!


  1. J Sci Med Sport. 2015 Jul;18(4):486-91
  2. J Sport Exerc Psych 2009; 31: 18-36
  3. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2018 Mar 1;13(3):283-289
  4. Physiol Behav. 2016 May 1;158:1-5

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