The alternative practice du jour in Rio, so far, has been cupping. In years past it was special, stretchy tape, said to support sore muscles and improve range of motion. And dietary supplements are an ever-popular option.
Like every other treatment or intervention, though, these purported performance-enhancers are subject to the placebo effect — benefits due to the recipient’s belief in a treatment. Not only can placebos improve medical indicators, like pain in people who are sick, they can help athletes go faster, higher and stronger.
“The idea that the placebo effect is manifest in sports performance should not be any surprise at all,” says Chris Beedie, a reader in Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Canterbury Christ Church University in the U.K. Even very powerful drugs like morphine work better in people who know they’re taking them rather than those who don’t, he says. So in the case of illicit drugs like EPO, banned for use in athletes, there’s likely some small incremental placebo boost on top of the very real physiological effects.
On the other end of the spectrum, he says, are treatments whose benefits are likely to be entirely or almost entirely due to the placebo effect.
Caffeine falls in the middle of that spectrum — proven to be helpful, but also subject to an extra boost that’s based on the belief that it is helpful.
For example, in one small study Beedie and his colleagues published in 2006, cyclists who were told they’d received large doses of caffeine generated a bigger increase in power (relative to their baseline performance) than cyclists who thought they’d received small doses. And those who were told they got a placebo did worse than they did in a baseline test. In fact, none of the cyclists in the study …