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Anticipated Task Difficulty Provokes Pace Conservation and Slower Running Performance

Brick, Noel E.1; Fitzpatrick, Ben L.2; Turkington, Robin2; Mallett, John C.1

doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001844
Original Investigation: PDF Only

Purpose Models of self-paced endurance performance suggest that accurate knowledge of the exercise end-point influences pace-related decision-making. No studies have examined the effects of anticipated task difficulty during equidistant endurance activities. Accordingly, the purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of anticipated task difficulty on pacing, psychological, and physiological responses during running time-trials.

Methods Twenty-eight trained runners completed three self-paced 3000 m time-trials. The first was a baseline (BL) time-trial completed on a 0% treadmill gradient. Time-trials 2 and 3 were counterbalanced. Before a known incline (KI) time-trial, anticipated to be more difficult, subjects were accurately informed that the gradient would increase to 7% for the final 800 m. Before an equivalent, unknown incline (UI) time-trial subjects were deceptively informed that the gradient would remain at 0% throughout.

Results Expressed relative to BL, running speed was 2.44% slower (d = -0.47) over the first 2200 m during KI than UI. Effort perception, affective valence, heart rate, and blood lactate did not differ between time-trials. Initial running speed during KI was related to pre-trial motivation, pre-trial vigor, perceived effort, and affective valence (all r ≥ .382). No such relationships existed during UI. More subjects also reported a conscious focus on pacing during KI.

Conclusion An anticipated increase in task difficulty provoked pace conservation during 3000 m running time-trials. The reduced pace may have resulted from greater task uncertainty and consciously aware, effort- and affect-based decisions to conserve energy and maintain hedonic state during KI. The findings add to theoretical understandings of factors that influence pacing during endurance activity. Consequently, recommendations to minimize the potentially deleterious effects of anticipated increases in task difficulty are provided.

1School of Psychology, Ulster University, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom

2School of Sport, Ulster University, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom

Corresponding author details: Dr Noel E. Brick. School of Psychology, Ulster University, Cromore Road, Coleraine, Northern Ireland, UK. BT52 1SA. Telephone: +44 (0)28 71675366. Email: n.brick@ulster.ac.uk. ORCHID: 0000-0002-3714-4660

This study received no sources of funding. The authors have no conflicts of interest to report. The results do not constitute endorsement by the ACSM and are presented clearly, honestly, and without fabrication, falsification, or inappropriate data manipulation.

Accepted for publication October 2018.

© 2018 American College of Sports Medicine