Facts So Romantic

Distraction Can Make You a Faster Cyclist

Women's Road Race, Day 2 of Rio Olympics | Bryn Lennon / Getty

In the slightly surreal yet decidedly wonderful 2003 animated film The Triplets of Belleville, three drugged cyclists pedal stationary bikes on-stage in a theatre while French mafia types bet on which of them will win their “race”—as they pedal, they gaze at film of a road course projected onto a screen in front of them, shot from a cyclist’s perspective.

Aside from the being-drugged part, it turns out there’s likely some good advice in the science. Cycling while focusing your attention on a film, as opposed to the internal tasks your body does to propel a bicycle forward, could actually help you be more efficient, according to a study published last month in Psychology of Sport and Exercise. The team of researchers, from the University of Münster, in Germany, found that when they told endurance cyclists to focus their attention on ensuring a smooth, circular motion to their pedaling, they performed at a lower level than those who were told to focus instead on a video of a cycling course playing in front of them, Triplets of Belleville-style.

Just over two-dozen healthy cyclists, found by contacting local cycling clubs, were asked to carry out a randomly ordered series of six-minute time trials. The researchers were interested in the repetitive movements specifically carried out by long-distance cyclists, as opposed to runners or other endurance athletes. Their “special interest,” the researchers say, was in observing how the “internal temporal structure” of cyclists’ pedaling would be affected by how they’re told to focus. This would allow the researchers to test the “constrained-action hypothesis,” which assumes that “a more automatic, self-organized mode of movement coordination” results from focusing on something external, as opposed to an internal one, they say, where the cyclist focuses “on the limbs, monitoring and controlling them consciously.”

For each trial, the cyclists were told to center their attention on a different task, three of which had an internal focus, relating to body movements; two of those were specifically related to pedalling. The fourth and final task was watching a cycling video, which meant focusing on the results of body movements instead of the movements themselves. (To ensure the cyclists were focusing on the video, they were asked to count red circles occasionally shown on the screen.)

They were moving more than they needed to, and so burned more energy than was necessary—not a great thing to be doing when you’re trying to win a long race.

The researchers wanted to know how focusing on these movements, or none at all, affected how economically they were carried out, which meant measuring how much oxygen each cyclist consumed while cycling at a standardized level of intensity during each trial. When the cyclists focused on the circular motion of their pedaling, their movement economy suffered—they consumed 2.5 percent more oxygen—relative to when they focused on the video. The authors attributed this potentially “pivotal” difference to the cyclists getting caught up in ensuring a smooth, rhythmic pedalling style, thus disturbing the very style they were seeking to achieve.

Isn’t that ironic? It was only when the cyclists focused specifically on the nature of their pedalling, as opposed to other body movements—such as the push and pull of their upper leg muscles or the positioning of their head relative to their neck—that their cycling became less economical. They were moving more than they needed to, and so burned more energy than was necessary—not a great thing to be doing when you’re trying to win a long race.

Since they can’t exactly watch a film of a cyclist racing down the road, perhaps today’s cyclists should simply keep scanning the horizon as they race for whatever lies ahead.

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Chris Drudge is a science writer from Canada. Follow him on Twitter @RosinCerate.


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