TO ME IT SEEMS NEARLY EVERY FITNESS ADVICE ARTICLE THAT ATTEMPTS TO HELP PEOPLE PERSEVERE IN FITNESS ACTIVITIES suggests working with a partner, finding a tribe, or joining a class. The abstract of a recent scientific research publication in the Strength and Conditioning Journal that was offered ahead of print appeared to explain a reason.
In the 2019 article The Kohler Effect: A Motivational Strategy for Strength and Conditioning, author Christopher R. Hill PhD from the Department of Kinesiology of California State University at San Bernardino in California, indicates “research in social psychology has largely found people do not work as hard when in group settings”. The statement seems to contradict the most common advice to workout newbies, so I looked for further explanation of the Kohler Effect (KE).
After searching science journals a bit more, another 2012 study abstract was located that offered information on the KE, The Kohler Effect: Motivation Gains and Losses in Real Sports Groups. Lead author Kaitlynn Osborn of Michigan State University and colleagues wrote, “Results show that inferior group members” of a swim team “had significantly greater motivation gains than non-inferior teammates in preliminary and final swim races”. When track and field athletes were studied “similar results were replicated”, “with the weakest member of the team showing larger difference scores from individual to group competition compared to middle-ranked and higher ranked teammates”.
The scientific literature was looking at the KE from the perspective of the ‘higher-ranked‘ and ‘middle-ranked’ team member, or a coach attempting to get the most from her or his best athletes. Being paired or grouped with an ‘inferior-ranked’ athlete seems to be detrimental to their training according to KE studies.
The popular media provided a few other lay articles that offered advice based on the Kohler effect, but seemingly from the opposite perspective, that of exercisers whom the scientific studies would identify as ’inferior’ team members. Those for whom working out in group classes rather than alone would result in better performances.
This little bit of discovered science sheds light, for me, on why we might gravitate to solo or group exercise situations depending on whether we consider ourselves to be a stronger versus weaker members of a group or class. For example, to be faster it seems wise to train with faster runners /cyclists or alone, but occasionally social-run/cycle with those of equal or lesser speediness. To receive an introduction to resistance training, it may be best to join a class, but to seriously build strength it's better to arrange solo sessions or partner with a superior weight trainer.
Companies like Peleton™ and Strava™ appear to capitalize on the KE by allowing subscribers to find competitors and classes that will enhance each individual’s motivation and training needs.*
The science behind the Kohler effect also supports the Earned Runs approach to becoming an athlete: it involves committing to a challenge and training without seeking or requiring others to affirm or join your effort. The responsibility to begin and demonstrate a willingness to work hard to reach a goal lies with the individual. For some, taking on a fitness challenge requires separating from our social circle of 'inferior' team members, who cannot increase our motivation level. Later decisions to join or not join with partners or groups will, possibly related to the Kohler effect, arise from the strategy and tactics that we test to move us closer to achieving that goal.
The best of the best in a sport struggle to find training partners who inspire greater motivation. In running**, elites will train in teams although they compete against each other as individuals. Intuitively this practice makes sense. As a recreational athlete, it’s fun to have stumbled upon the science which may have promoted this practice.
RUN & MOVE HAPPY!
*I have not used these products/services; please comment if you have first hand experience.
** World-class cyclists compete in teams. Would appreciate comments of cyclists .
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EARNED RUNS is edited and authored by me, runner and founder. In 1978 I began participating in 10K road races before 5Ks were common. I've been a dietitian, practiced and taught clinical pathology, and been involved with research that utilized pathology. I am fascinated with understanding the origins of disease as well as health and longevity.
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