Tap Into the Power of the Placebo Effect
When your brain thinks a recovery technique is helping you make progress, whether or not it has scientific backing may not matter much to your body.
- The placebo effect is believing so strongly in a result that you experience it, regardless of what science says.
- Things like ice baths don't have much research to back them up, but the brain could still release endorphins when you sit in one, aiding your progress.
- Get other people's perspective on a technique's benefit to pump up the effect.
Read on to learn more …
If your partner brewed a pot of coffee and you didn't know it was decaf until halfway through your cup—but you still felt energised and on top of your game—would you stop drinking it? Your answer matters less than the phenomenon does, known as the placebo effect, which is responsible for the caffeine-free boost.
"The placebo effect is when someone experiences a positive result based on their belief in an intervention rather than the characteristics of the intervention itself", says Shona Halson, PhD, an associate professor at the Australian Catholic University who specialises in recovery. It's also about not having any doubt that what you're trying will have a positive result, even if there's no proof.
Many athletes may be tapping into the placebo effect to make training progress when they try buzzy new recovery techniques, even if they don't realise it. Despite their popularity, many of these methods, including percussive massage guns (think a power drill with a foam ball attachment) and cryotherapy (chilling in an ice-cold chamber), could be connected to both physiological benefits and this psychological experience—sometimes more of the latter than the former.
Take compression socks, for example. They're hyped as a way to reduce swelling and soreness post-workout. But a recent systemic review of the scientific literature in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that participants who wore them experienced a lower perception of muscle soreness but no benefits on markers of muscle damage or inflammation. Another study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that the socks' recovery effects may be further enhanced when athletes believed they would work.
There are also pneumatic compression devices, which look like soft casts for your arms and legs. Researchers noted in the International Journal of Exercise Science that the placebo effect could help explain why participants reported a faster recovery time and less pain from delayed-onset muscle soreness when they wore those than when they sported a traditional, continuously worn compression sleeve. (Perhaps the advanced-tech look of the pneumatic devices made them seem more legit? Who knows?)
Similar findings apply to other recovery methods, like ice baths and massages: some research has found that most participants had better results when they believed the therapy would be helpful, proving, once again, that the brain plays a prominent role in our progress.
The Psychology Behind the Placebo Effect
So does that mean these people should doubt their experience? Not at all, says Halson. The sensation itself may be in your head, but its impacts are very real.
"The placebo effect usually involves expectations, which are managed by the brain's prefrontal cortex", explains Lauren Atlas, PhD, an affective neuroscience and pain investigator at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health. "That region can connect with others that cause chemicals to be released and affect the body's response, such as endorphins [feel-good hormones]". There are multiple types of placebos, she says, and some can engage your opioid system to actually block pain signals from reaching the brain, while others can change your emotions and make you feel more relaxed.
There's another reason, though, that the placebo effect comes up so often in recovery research in particular. "In sport, winning can come down to tiny parts of a second", says Halson. "And most serious athletes will try almost anything to get that edge", especially if it's as simple as wearing a sock.
A sense of ritual may enhance the placebo effect's potential, adds Halson. "Most recovery techniques are very sensory experiences", she says. So if you feel like you're doing something good for your body every time you shiver your way through an ice bath or rub cooling gel on your muscles, that belief and the confidence it inspires can power your subsequent performance. And the more you want something to work, the more likely you are to believe it will, says Halson.
How to Use the Effect to Your Advantage
In the market for a new recovery strategy? Go in with doubt and you risk having a poor experience—or what experts call the "nocebo effect"—says Atlas. The best thing you can do is be open-minded. And make sure you're using the tool or method, be it a percussive therapy gun or electrical stimulation, for the right reason: they're meant to optimise your recovery, not heal a bigger physical problem. "If you're dealing with an underlying issue or injury, you want to see a professional", says Halson.
Intrigued by something you see on social media or read about online? Talk to other people, like your super-active friends or a physiotherapist who has experience with various recovery techniques, to find out what they think about it, suggests Halson. If someone else is pumped about a technique's benefits, that makes you more likely to believe in its abilities too.
Not to get too meta, but if you believe the placebo effect itself is real and effective, you're more likely to experience it and its progress pay-off. Yep, there's a placebo effect for the placebo effect. How cool.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Gracia Lam