The Placebo Workout

A placebo can have a very powerful effect. In a clinical sense, a placebo (the control) and the real drug (intervention) are given to patients to determine the therapeutic effect on an illness or disease. Both patients believe they are receiving drugs which will treat their illness. The health of BOTH patients begins to improve… Why??? The placebo effect. Both patients believe the drug will help them (and one actually is). The psychological state of the other can become the cure.

Some athletes think like this also. Distance athletes believe if only they start using Lydiard’s, Cerutty or Daniel’s distance workouts it will address (cure) their weaknesses. Sprinters want to use the workouts from Francis, Mills or Smith as it will provide the golden elixir to speed they have been missing. The cultural currency which is tied to the name of the workout or the programme is the placebo. Coach X used these workouts or programmes with these athletes and achieved these results; therefore it should work for me too. It might… and also might not.

Results are multifactorial. Many ingredients are thrown in the pot, over a duration of time to achieve the best tasting soup. Cherry picking sessions and adding it to your own pot will deliver a very different tasting soup; and different results.

The power (and success) of a placebo workout/programme can often just come down to change and athlete mentality. The athlete wants it to work! They begin to make wholescale changes in their training and day-to-day lives. They eat better, go to bed earlier, have more frequent therapy. They have completely moved the goal posts. The human body is dynamic; one small change can have an immeasurable effect on homeostasis. The stimulus-stress-adaptation response from the new workout(s) may have been enough to provide a positive outcome; however the acute load may be too high and it may lead to negative results.

Good programmes from great coaches, some listed above, are built upon the foundations of strong training principles and the art of coaching. On top of this, programmes and coaches can be validated by talented athletes. The athlete may be achieving great things in spite of the training; so how much is actually the programme (see here)? As mentioned, a change (placebo) can deliver acute results in performance but these can quite often fade and stagnate. However, over time, continuity of results will be achieved and maintained due to effective manipulation of training principles and solid coaching.

Don’t be fooled by a snake oil salesman selling magical workouts or programmes. There are no quick fixes to high performance in sport. The path to high performance will always remain the same. Commitment and continuity, hard work and smart programming; along with many other factors. New programmes (placebos) are often attractive to those searching for the answers, or those who have underperformed in the previous season. However, time searching is quite often fruitless. The answer lies in the KPIs of the event. Understand what these are and work towards improving them during each session.

In the end, there are no absolutes and a placebo may improve performance. However, just know, snake oil doesn’t work and magical workouts are a fallacy.