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Study shows that time drags when we are exercising hardest

Released: 28.09.17

New research has shown for the first time that time drags when we are exercising hardest. The study, led by Plymouth Marjon University demonstrates that our perception of time slows down during intensive exercise.

Published in the international journal Physiology & Behavior the research is the first to test our perception of time during exercise. It shows that when our bodies are working at full intensity, we are likely to over-estimate how long we feel we have been exercising. The research found that while we can fairly accurately gauge how long we have been exercising for at the early stages, as time goes on we are likely to feel that we have been working for longer than we actually have.

In the study, 12 fit adults carried out a series of 20-minute rowing and 30-second cycling tests on four separate occasions, working at light, heavy and maximal exertion. They were asked to report to the research team when they felt they had completed 25 per cent, 50 per cent, 75 per cent and 100 per cent of the allotted time. While participants were able to accurately gauge when they had completed 25 or 50 per cent of the time, their later estimates during heavy and maximal exercise were shorter than the actual time. In other words, when they were more than half way through the allotted time, they felt that more time had passed than it had.

When they were cycling at maximal intensity participants over-estimated how much of the 30 seconds had passed by an average of four-and-a-half seconds. During the 20-minute rowing exercise, the participants over-estimated the time passed by, on average, over two-and-a-half minutes.

Lead researcher Professor Andrew Edwards of Plymouth Marjon University said: “Our study is 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. Science has already shown that in dangerous situations our brains slow down our perception of time. This is thought to be because during an intense experience, adrenaline is high and our emotions and senses are heightened, so our brains appear to pack in more detail as a fight or flight response as we pack a lot in, giving the impression of time passing slowly. This could also be the case with high intensity exercise, which – while generally not dangerous - is not a pleasant experience.

“Our study highlights important considerations for both amateur and professional athletes. A misjudgement in time could lead to a misjudgement in pace. This is particularly problematic with long distance events, such as a marathon, Iron Man and ultra endurance races where we often see novice runners over-estimate how well they are doing only to burn out before the end of the race. This research underlines the importance of having a race plan that incorporates both pacing and time. Something as simple as wearing and using a watch to monitor time during training and an event could help to keep endurance athletes on track.”


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