Optimal arousal level


By Gary Droze


If you compare the starting line atmosphere of a local high school distance race to that of a community event populated by adults, one distinction strikes you immediately: boy howdy are those kids ever stimulated! Between the goofy pre-race team cheers, the frenzied sprints to the port-o-lets, and the barked shards of advice from frazzled coaches (“Get out fast…turn left – I mean right – at the cone…and hey, TIE YOUR SHOES!”) it’s a wonder area tyros don’t drown in their own adrenaline before the starting gun even fires.

That feverish starting line scenario often leads to wildly erratic pacing, which in turn yields performances that frustrate the younger runner. In fact, a classic sports psychology theory addresses such a scenario. I first encountered the “Inverted U Theory” a dozen years ago, in a graduate class taught by Florida State University Educational Psychology Professor David Pargman. Dr. Pargman, who also coordinates the Sports Psychology Program at FSU, used the Inverted U theory to describe the link between arousal and sport performance. Essentially, increased arousal correlates with increased performance only up to a general range; beyond this optimal range, further increases in arousal serve only to hamper performance. For example, a youngster who is capable of running 21 minutes for three miles may find herself so excited at the starting line that she loses control over her race strategy and her sense of pace. She may commit physical and mental mistakes (anything from improper pacing to forgetting a planned surge against an opponent) that cost her a minute or more in her race.

How can our overanxious athlete find her optimal arousal level for a distance race? A simple “trial and error” approach is to have her assign a number, from 1 to 10, indicating how excited she feels at the starting line of a race (or workout that simulates a race). Over the course of the season, try to determine the arousal level that corresponds with a satisfying race; then duplicate that level for future races.

Of course, the real trick lies in finding ways to duplicate that optimal arousal level, once coach and athlete have stumbled upon it. To confound the issue, different runners have different optimal arousal levels, even for races of comparable distances. As yet, no hi-tech piece of gadgetry exists for inducing just the right amount of arousal needed for a personal best distance race. But perhaps this is for the best…those goofy pre-race team cheers can be mighty entertaining!