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Placebo Study Uses Salt Water Injections to Make Runners Faster

Researchers test the placebo effect to see if it improves running performance.

If you believe there’s something in salt water that makes you a faster runner, then according to this study, you’ll most likely run faster. New research published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal has demonstrated how the placebo effect can alter athletic performance for better results.

This should be a given considering that running not only relies on physical capabilities, but also on our motivational capacities. Our attitudes and mindsets greatly affect whether we believe we can achieve that new PR or not, and it’s what makes it possible to pick up the pace in the last miles of a marathon. When we think we’ve reached our physical limits, our minds can kick in with an extra reserve of energy, endurance and strength.

Although mental deception in training has been tested before, this particular study is the first to test placebos in real-world competitive situations to find out if there’s still room to tap into physical reserves during races—based on the assumption that we always use 100 percent of our effort in competition.

The researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, thus gave 15 male endurance-trained recreational runners injections of salt water, in which the men were told was a legal form of erythropoietin , or E.P.O, a substance that increases red blood cells in the body. E.P.O. is commonly known as a performance enhancing drug in sports as it helps carry more oxygen to laboring muscles produced from the increase in number of red blood cells.

Researchers informed participants that this “drug” would have less harmful side effects and a lower dosage than the banned E.P.O. drug, but would still increase the red blood cell count and thus improve performance.

The 15 participants were initially split into two groups for randomized testing. The first group underwent a weeklong control phase in which nothing was given but the men continued a regular training week, and then followed with a placebo phase in which they received daily saline injections for another week. The second group started with the placebo phase and then ended with a control phase.

Before undergoing the different phases though, participants competed in a 3K race on a track to determine baseline finishing times. They then raced again after the first week, the men then switched phases, and after another week of mixed placebo and control subjects, raced a final time.

The results? After the placebo week, quantitative data showed that the men improved their 3K race-time by 1.2 percent compared to the control week which had little to no change in race time. Qualitative logs on how the men felt during the placebo interventions also reveal that the men felt more confident and motivated, and one participant even admits, “Everything was much quicker. I have to admit when I was on the substance I was on the verge of injury. I kept pushing myself too hard, just because I could and because it was fun.”

Reversely, the comment about feeling over-confident also shows that the placebo could potentially have a negative effect on training, but overall the fake drug had “a meaningful performance enhancing effect,” said the lead physiologist of the study, Ramzy Ross, in a New York Times article.