Placebo power is the term used to define the phenomenon where athletes experience improvements in their athletic performance when they are given placebos instead of real drugs or treatments. There have been many studies on this topic and it seems that there is no consensus yet on what exactly causes these effects. Some researchers believe that the placebo effect may be due to a combination of psychological factors (e.g., belief in the effectiveness of a treatment) and physiological ones (e.g., changes in blood flow). Others think that the placebo effect is caused solely by psychological factors. The most common explanation for the placebo effect is that it results from the fact that some patients feel better than others after receiving a drug or treatment.
The scientific literature on this subject is extensive, but it still remains controversial because there are so few studies conducted on this topic. A meta-analysis of all published research findings suggests that placebos do indeed improve athletic performance in healthy individuals (Phelps et al., 2008). However, other studies suggest that placebos don’t necessarily increase athletic performance in healthy subjects (Rosenblum & Kaptchuk, 2006; Pendergrast et al., 2007).
Other research shows no significant difference between placebo and active control groups (Boden et al., 2010).
There are several theories about why the placebo effect occurs. One theory states that the placebo effect is due to a change in cognitive processes. It is thought that certain expectations about the effectiveness of a treatment leads to psychological changes that improve an athlete’s performance.
Another theory suggests that placebos lead to biochemical changes in the brain. Expectations can increase neurotransmitters (e.g., endorphins) and hormones (such as adrenaline).
It is thought that these biochemical changes may produce an enhanced state of arousal and a decrease in pain perception. This may improve athletic performance.
A third theory states that the people who believe that a placebo will improve their performance are likely to engage in more relaxed, effortless “muscle contraction and movement patterns” during competition. This is referred to as the “idea effect.”
There are a couple of important limitations that must be considered when reviewing the research on placebos and athletic performance. First, most studies have focused on the impact of placebos on endurance events (e.g. running).
Second, most studies have focused on the effect of placebos on healthy individuals. As such, more research is needed on the effectiveness of placebos in clinical populations and in sports with a high degree of difficulty (such as gymnastics and figure skating).
It seems that more research needs to be done on this topic before we will know exactly how placebos affect athletic performance. There are several possible mechanisms that may explain the placebo effect (e.g. changes in neurotransmitters and hormones).
It is also not exactly clear whether the beneficial effects of placebos are the result of an enhanced state of mind or body.
Furthermore, it is not known whether placebos have the same effect in clinical populations and in more difficult sports. Also, it is not certain if a placebo can ever help an athlete perform better than their true ability.In any event, it would probably be a good idea for coaches to keep the “placebo effect” in mind when preparing for important competitions. This is particularly true for coaches of Olympic sports that are dependent upon intense training and high motivation.
If a placebo can help an athlete feel more relaxed, confident, and “in the zone” during competition, then it may be worth employing this strategy. A word of caution to coaches using placebos with their athletes, however.
Sources & references used in this article:
Placebo effect of carbohydrate feedings during a 40-km cycling time trial. by VR Clark, WG Hopkins, JA Hawley… – … in sports and exercise, 2000 – europepmc.org
The placebo effect in sports performance by CJ Beedie, AJ Foad – Sports Medicine, 2009 – Springer
Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect by AJ Crum, EJ Langer – Psychological Science, 2007 – journals.sagepub.com
Placebo effect and athletes by TH Trojian, CJ Beedie – Current sports medicine reports, 2008 – journals.lww.com
Are the beneficial effects of ischemic preconditioning on performance partly a placebo effect by M Marocolo, GR Da Mota, V Pelegrini… – Int J Sports …, 2015 – researchgate.net
Placebo effects in sport and exercise: a meta-analysis by M Bérdi, F Köteles, A Szabó, G Bárdos – European Journal of Mental …, 2011 – ceeol.com
Postexercise cold water immersion benefits are not greater than the placebo effect by JR Broatch, A Petersen, DJ Bishop – … Science in Sports & Exercise, 2014 – researchgate.net
All in the mind? Pain, placebo effect, and ergogenic effect of caffeine in sports performance by CJ Beedie – Open access journal of sports medicine, 2010 – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
A review of the ketogenic diet for endurance athletes: performance enhancer or placebo effect? by CP Bailey, E Hennessy – Journal of the International Society of Sports …, 2020 – Springer