Cognitive Daily

With my high school reunion coming up, memories just seem to well up out of nowhere. One of the most powerful was that of my cross-country coach’s booming voice yelling “stride, Munger, stride!” across the track. I wasn’t the best runner on the team, but whenever I heard that voice, I’d always start running faster. Sometimes when I’m out for my morning run, I wish I still had my coach’s voice to urge me on.

I’ve never had any doubt that verbal encouragement helped me perform better on the track, but I have wondered what exactly about the encouragement is helping. Does it just increase my “will” to run faster? Does it literally make me feel better? Or does it just distract me from my struggles?

Studies have confirmed that encouraging words do indeed decrease runners’ own ratings of how tired they are. Playing music during exercise has the same effect. A group led by Joseph Andreacci wanted to extend this research to learn what specific factors led to runners feeling less exerted. They devised an experiment, published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology, which measured several additional factors.

Thirty-six volunteers, all college-age women, agreed to participate in the study. They were first tested for the maximum volume of oxygen they could use in a workout by running on a treadmill until they were exhausted. Their noses were clipped shut so a mouthpiece could measure the amount of oxygen consumed. After they were rested, they participated in a baseline test, with no verbal encouragement. During this test, which became gradually more difficult, they not only rated their overall level of exertion, but also gave separate ratings for exertion in breathing and in the legs. Ratings were taken at low, medium, and high levels of exertion (these were defined as 37, 54, and 80 percent of maximum oxygen consumption, to account for different levels of fitness in the participants).

Two weeks later, they returned for a similar test—except this time, the women were given differing levels of verbal encouragement. As expected, verbal encouragement decreased the overall ratings of exertion, but the specific ratings told a different story:

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While verbal encouragement significantly lowered exertion ratings for legs, the small difference in chest exertion ratings did not rise to the level of statistical significance. Heart rates as well remained the same for both conditions. There was also no difference between offering encouragement every 20 seconds or every 60 seconds—both were equally successful. The entire difference in overall exertion levels appears to be accounted for by the lowering of perceived leg exertion. Apparently, words of encouragement can impact the legs, but not the lungs.

Andreacci et al. argue that people could feel less exerted when they focus on the external environment, instead of their own internal feelings. The verbal encouragement, even occasional, causes runners to concentrate on the social interaction with the “cheerleader” instead of her own exhaustion. It was certainly true that when my track coach yelled at me, I wasn’t thinking about my pain—I was trying to figure out what to do to get him to stop yelling. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t show up for my class reunion—I might feel a sudden urge to start running around in circles in my tuxedo!

Andreacci, J., Robertson, R., Goss, F. L., Randall, C. R., Tessmer, K. A., Nagle, E. E., & Gallagher, K. A. (2004). Frequency of verbal encouragement effects sub-maximal extertional perceptions during exercise testing in young adult women. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 35(4), 267-283.