Why athletes can’t resist racing in practice


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


I posted a few times last month about the sometimes irresistible urge to race in practice. In that context, I was interested to see a description of this study, published in PNAS last week by neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis:

Whether it’s for money, marbles or chalk, the brains of reward-driven people keep their game faces on, helping them win at every step of the way. Surprisingly, they win most often when there is no reward.

Basically, the researchers used fMRI scans to monitor the brains of people participating in word games with and without monetary rewards. They found that, once an association between activity and reward is established, the pattern of brain activity shifts to automatic mode so that the actual presence of the reward is irrelevant.

The research has important implications for understanding the nature of persistent motivation, how the brain creates such states, and why some people seem to be able to use motivation more effectively than others.

They suspect the mechanism has to do with dopamine:

“It would be like the dopamine neurons recognize a cup of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and tell the lateral PFC the right action strategy to get the reward — to grab a spoon and bring the ice cream to your mouth,” Braver says. “We think that the dopamine neurons fires to the cue rather than the reward itself, especially after the brain learns the relationship between the two. We’d like to explore that some more.”

So in an athletic context, maybe that means the cues surrounding a hard training session are sufficient to spark some of the same brain chemistry that takes over in a race with big rewards on the line, even though the practice doesn’t have any rewards of its own.

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