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Believing in your training could enhance brain benefits

New sports psychology research suggests that our attitude to exercise could influence how much psychological benefit we get from training, which in turn could boost performance.

As knowledge in sports science and sports psychology grows, it is apparent that the mind is a very important tool when trying to harness peak performance in triathlons – as shown by many elite triathletes. But as well as keeping calm during a race, a recent study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine and carried out by a team at Germany's University of Freiburg's Department of Sport Science, found that an individual’s attitude and expectations about an exercise session can influence the psychological and neurophysiological benefits gained from that session.    

So, when you are faced with a gloomy 6.30am training session in the rain, it might be worth taking a few moments to get yourself in a more positive headspace, as it could benefit your brain and body in the long-term and make the difference on race day.    

The research involved 76 participants, whose age ranged from 18 to 32 years old. The subjects were randomly allocated into different groups, with each group being shown one of several multimedia presentations, before all groups completed 30 minutes on an exercise bike. Some of the presentations highlighted the benefits of cycling on health, whilst others didn’t.

The participants were also asked to answer questions on whether they already believed the positive effects of physical activity (‘habitual expectation’), and their mood before and after the exercise session. Brain activity was also measured, using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

Participants who already believed the positive effects of exercise before the start of the study reported reduced anxiety levels, being in a better mood, and enjoyed the exercise more. They were also shown to have neurophysiological changes on the EEG after the exercise –in this case, more brain-activity in regions linked with relaxation and well-being. 

Those who had been exposed to positive multimedia presentations before their exercise session also recorded the same EEG neurophysiological changes, but not the same self-reported psychological changes, as the ‘habitual expectation’ participants.  This shows that while expectation can be influenced by outside information, making self-belief and positive mindset about exercise a regular habit has a stronger effect on mood and well-being.

The team think that this effect is present across a range of endurance sports – great news for triathletes, as a regular effort to really believe in training sessions could result in more benefits for the brain, which in turn may improve performance.    

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