How does intensive exercise prolong the effects of time?

By Anna Dutton

A study led by Plymouth Marjon University has found that an individual’s experience of time is slowed down and distorted by periods of intensive exercise.

The paper was published in ‘Physiology and Behaviour’ an international journal that was the first scientific text to present these findings. The results of the study found that during periods of intensive exercise, the body performs at its maximum effort.

Due to this, an individual may miscalculate the amount of time they have been exercising. The paper also found that during the initial stages of a work-out, a person is more accurate in their perception of time and how long they have been exercising, but that as the work out continued, the individual felt they had been exercising longer than the length of the session.

The study was conducted by analysing the results of twelve fit adults who took part in a 20-minute rowing followed by a 30-second cycling test. This was repeated on four different occasions, with the intensity varying from light, to heavier and finally maximum effort on behalf of the individual. Each volunteer was then prompted to report to the research team when they felt they had completed first twenty-five percent, then increasing to fifty, then to seventy-five and finally, one hundred percent of their given time slot.

The study showed that individuals correctly deciphered when they had completed the lower two percentiles, but when their individual efforts were increased to a heavy and then maximum effort work out, they thought they had been exercising for longer than they actually had. This showed that when individuals had surpassed fifty percent of their allotted time, they believed a greater amount of time had passed.

During the rowing exercise at maximum intensity, participants gauged the time passed to have been an additional two-and-a-half minutes extra. When they were cycling, those doing their maximum effort went over their time slot by an average of four-and-a-half seconds.

Professor Andrew Edwards was the lead researcher for the paper and he stated that his study was the ‘first to show what many amateur and professional athletes already know from experience- time seems to go more slowly when we are pushing ourselves the hardest.’ He then goes on to comment about the brain’s response in dangerous situations as being to ‘slow down our perception of time’. Research suggests this is because, during an intensive experience, emotions, adrenaline, and our senses are heightened. A ‘fight-or-flight’ response is then invoked forcing the brain to slow down its thinking time and reactive processes. This results in time passing more slowly. This then links to intensive exercise as although it is not dangerous – despite some arguing otherwise- it requires a similar response.

Professor Edwards further explains the problems this may cause for some athletes, suggesting that considerations should be made beforehand ‘a misjudgement in time could lead to a misjudgement in pace.’ He describes this as being ‘particularly problematic with long distance events,’ listing the ‘marathon’ and ‘Iron Man’ as specific examples. He suggests that this could be why ‘novice runners’ struggle as they misjudge the time they have been running for and then ‘burn out before the end of the race.’ He proposes that a ‘race plan’ is crucial and uses the example of a watch for its ability to accurately measure the time an athlete has been running/training for.

In summary, the findings of this study iterate the importance of planning and preparation before taking part in intensive exercise. With the Cardiff Half Marathon only taking place recently, and the London Marathon approaching, the study provides runners with sound evidence for the advice that training is the most important part of an athlete’s programme.

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