It makes sense why so many runners wake up before the sun rises to get their miles in. It knocks out their exercise for the day, and they can avoid the judgmental gaze of their neighbors. But if you’re looking for a new way to pick up the pace, you might actually want to consider having an audience.
Sports psychologists have understood for some time that athletic performance can be enhanced by the presence of spectators — a concept referred to as “social facilitation theory.” Until recently, though, gender differences for this phenomena had yet to be taken into account.
But when COVID temporarily shut down most spectator sports, the 2020 Biathlon World Cup athletes were left to compete without a crowd. Likewise, psychologists at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany were left with a unique data set to compare: the athletes’ performances with an audience from the year before, and the crowdless performance during quarantine. “The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to study an audience’s influence outside of experimental conditions in the real world,” study co-author Amelie Heinrich explained in a press release.
It’s worth noting that biathlons are a winter sport that consist of cross-country skiing and shooting. But for the purposes of the study, the researchers use running and cross-country skiing interchangeably, suggesting that the amount of stamina required is comparable and that the results could also translate to a morning jog. After comparing the cross-country skiing times and shooting scores of male and female athletes from the 2018-2019 season to their scores in 2020, researchers found that “the men’s results were as expected: They ran faster with an audience present, but performed more poorly in shooting,” Heinrich said.
Interestingly, the opposite was true for women, who ran slower when there was a crowd — even though having an audience improved their speed and accuracy while shooting. Study authors are fairly certain that the differences weren’t due to impairments in athletic performance from year to year, because they used data from 83 “sprint” biathlon events, in addition to 34 “mass start” events — or races that occur individually and races where everyone starts at the same time — and the pattern remained consistent overall.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time that a study was able to show a different effect of the audience on men and women,” said study co-author Oliver Stoll. He and his colleagues suspect the differences are due in part to the fact that cross-country skiing is a conditioning-related competition, whereas shooting requires more mental coordination. But as for the gender differences, “it’s possible that gender-specific stereotypes play a role,” Heinrich explained. For instance, women may be more sensitive to feedback from spectators, which hinders their running ability, but can focus them on a cognitive task.
Either way, if you’re a dude, it might make sense to delay that morning run until the afternoon — or at least until the whole neighborhood can see you.