Placebo Effect and Running

I got to thinking awhile back about beliefs and how they affect us. It generated this post which applies to things far beyond running but … definitely running too.

The Placebo Effect: The placebo effect is [most commonly found or described as] a medical phenomena in which a person’s beliefs about an inert substance or a sham therapy results in that treatment having the expected consequences of those beliefs upon health. The placebo effect can also be an additional boost for a real therapy or drug beyond that warranted solely by its actual physiological action. (Wikipedia)

Many people think that if it is “all in your head” that it isn’t real – much like how people think about psychosomatic illnesses. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The genesis may be in the head (brain-thoughts-beliefs) but the physical effects are real. Science hasn’t quite figured out the mechanism for placebos. It’s also not clear why a placebo works for one person and not another. More on that in a bit.

My first experience with placebos was in the early 80s as a nurse at a VA hospital administering patients placebo pain pills. Most often the patients had chronic pain issues of unknown origin. Many did not get relief from the traditional pain medications – morphine, methadone, etc. Of course it was all under close physician oversight. It was interesting to observe that in perhaps a fourth or so of the cases (to the best of my recollection) the patients reported at least some relief from the placebo.

What does this have to do with running? Lots. Runners – athletes – often look for quick fixes to ailments. Then, after trying some “new revolutionary” treatment they find relief. It could be in the form of an herb, a vitamin, an organically grown food, zillions of supplements (all natural of course – don’t even get me started on the supplement industry) or it can come in the way of a “new stretch” or trigger point activated in your body by a laser beam. It never ceases to amaze me at the variety of running related ailment cures. More interesting though is how when someone “gets better” they will automatically point to some inert pill they took which has no relation to their ailment. No one will ever convince that person that it was happenstance that they improved; nor that just the time off was what cured them; nor any of the other treatments were the real “cure” ticket. Even in light of the fact that most others with the same complaint taking the same “cure” in the same dosage never improve.

We want answers. We want to be able to attribute our recovery to something. We want meaning. Even if it is unsupported – we figure we must be the exception. But it doesn’t sway us from believing in “our cure.” Likewise, I witnessed in the hospital when patients didn’t believe in the treatments or just believed that they would die in fact did pass away. This, in spite of the fact that medically they should have survived.

Research on placebos is interesting. It has been found that there are cultural differences in the effectiveness of placebos. That isn’t surprising to me since the effectiveness of a placebo is based in a belief system. Everyone’s belief system is largely influenced by our environments, upbringing and experiences.

Belief is the key ingredient. So, let’s not worry about if it is real or not. It’s like debating if God exists. If you are a believer then God exists and if you are not then God doesn’t to you. This element of belief is so powerful that it can create realities in our bodies. This is not the superficial level of believing – Pollyanna-positive-thinking-all-is-OK stuff. The only way placebos work are to have complete belief that it indeed will work. Beyond placebos, if you do not believe in the treatments you use for any ailment the odds of getting better are diminished to some degree.

One message that seems to come through is this. If you believe you will never get better; never run injury free; that no treatments exist to help your issue; you just might be right. On the other hand, if you believe you will get better and never give up that belief you just might be right. If not, at least you have something to always look forward to.

As for me, I’m coming back. I’m always coming back.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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3 Responses to Placebo Effect and Running

  1. Dean says:

    Belief is all I have at this point.

    My injury odyssey (hopefully somewhat entertaining)

    – Dean

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Dean – sometimes that is all we can cling to… hang in there.

    Catchy name.

    Coach Dean

  3. Ria Osorio says:

    Don’t forget the titanium-infused accessories and “ionic” stuff out there in the market. I must admit I’m guilty, I bought a Phiten necklace. This week I believe it’s working, as I’m experiencing less pain (even with added intensity in training). Nonetheless, if this turns out to be a hoax, at least I have a cute choker to wear daily.

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