Sam on the mysterious power of ice cream
It’s the night before the Brighton Marathon and my husband, Jeff, is sitting on the sofa scoffing a Magnum Classic. I’ve pointed out that a chocolate-covered ice cream doesn’t strictly classify as carb-loading, but he doesn’t care – he ate one the night before achieving a lifetime best in a half marathon last month, so it has now become part of his pre-race preparations.
Will it help? Possibly. When, by accident or design, an item (say, ice cream) or procedure ( having a haircut) features in the lead-up to a successful outcome, we see causation. I performed well last month after eating a Magnum – something I’d never done before; ergo it contributed to my success. Even if a more rational part of you isn’t convinced it played a part in smashing that PB, you may still conclude that it’d be crazy to risk not eating one, just as you might choose to walk around a ladder, rather than underneath it – just in case. ‘It’s about belief, regardless of logic,’ says sport psychologist Andy Lane. ‘If you believe a specific action or item can affect how you perform, it probably will.’
Jeff is in good company. Many athletes engage in quirky pre-race behaviours or bear lucky talismans – Paula Radcliffe kept a special set of safety pins to use on her race bib, while US 10,000m record holder Molly Huddle paints her nails in a colour that’s meaningful to the race. In fact, research has found that elite athletes are more superstitious than amateurs.
Whether it’s donning lucky socks or always listening to a particular song on your way to a race, familiar behaviour patterns help bring a sense of order and control at a time when stress levels are high. ‘It’s not the socks themselves that have any effect but what putting them on does for your state of mind – helping you relax and raising your confidence,’ says Lane.
Another thing Jeff indulges in during the week leading up to a big race is a daily shot of beetroot juice. Another superstitious ritual, or does the evidence of its beneficial effect on endurance performance elevate it to something meaningful? ‘ With many ergogenic aids [substances that may boost performance] there is stronger evidence for the powerful effect belief exerts than there is for any biological mechanism,’ says Lane. In a study he conducted, athletes who believed caffeine aided performance got a stronger ergogenic effect than those who did not.
But I see a key difference in how the behaviour becomes part of a pre-race ritual. Drinking beetroot juice is a considered decision, with some logic behind it. In the ice cream scenario, it’s random: you perform particularly well and, in considering why this was, hit upon the fact that you ate a Magnum the day before. You then attribute your success, at least in part, to that, driving you to do the same thing on future occasions. In that sense, Jeff’s now-vital ice cream ritual could have been anything – a cold shower, a glass of wine, a curry…
I wonder what would happen if I scoffed all the Magnums before his next race? I like to think he’d accept that it wouldn’t really matter. But a German study1 found that when a group of people sitting a test were allowed to keep their ‘lucky’ mascots, they fared better than a comparison group whose talismans were banished. The authors concluded that the presence of a perceived lucky charm can lead to improved performance by boosting our belief in our ability to master the task in hand and increasing our willingness to persist in that task. Conversely, being deprived of the thing you believe brings you luck could adversely effect your performance.
Jeff didn’t get a PB in Brighton, but he did run his fastest marathon for 18 years (2:31:23). So I’ve got a feeling the Magnums are here to stay. In fact, I might just try one myself before my next race.