Better than doping: bike 25% faster by multitasking?
I recently made the terrible mistake of letting my cycling friends convince me to sign up for a 120 mile, 10,000 ft elevation gain bike ride. I own a bicycle, but I am by no means a cyclist. After about two hours, my legs feel heavy, my seat feels about as soft as a rock, and my friends usually leave me in the dust. Worst part? I have only a month left before this bike ride. I’m not about to take any performance enhancing drugs but is there another, “natural” way to go faster? When I heard about this recent article: Unexpected Dual Task Benefits on Cycling in Parkinson Disease and Healthy Adults: A Neuro-Behavioral Model, I had to take a deeper look.
The authors of the study originally did the study to help prove what most people already know: that multitasking effectively makes it harder and slower to do each individual task than if you had done the tasks one at a time. No one had ever studied what happens if one of the tasks was a basic motor function such as riding a bike, or if the people who were attempting to multitask had a neurologic condition (such as Parkinson’s) with “reduced resources for performing cognitive tasks.”
The study looked at 28 people with Parkinson’s disease (mild to moderate disease only) and 20 healthy individuals. Participants performed 12 different cognitive tasks while in a quiet room and while riding a stationary cycle (for 33-50 minutes depending on how long it took to complete the tasks). Tasks ranged in difficulty from saying “go” whenever a participant saw a blue star to repeating lists of numbers backwards or verifying math problems.
Participants rode the stationary bicycle at minimal resistance at whatever speed was comfortable for two minutes, stopped to receive instructions on the next task, and then would start a task and start bicycling at the same time. Task completion times were recorded as well as bicycle speed in RPM using a 10 camera motion capture system.
While healthy individuals biked faster than those with Parkinson’s, within each group, everyone biked about 25% faster when they performed basic cognitive tasks. More difficult tasks did still result in faster biking but not enough to be statistically significant. On average participants went from about 50 RPM starting to 62 RPM while performing tasks.
With the exception of one difficult task, biking had no effect on task completion time.
The author’s argue that their findings are due to “arousal” and catecholemines (compounds released in our bodies to get us ready for physical activity/”fight-or-flight”) released during physical activity or cognitive activity. They also argue that while studies of multitasking while walking show dual task effects/delays, the lack of these delays and benefit in cycling is probably because cycling requires less cognitive input than walking.
Unfortunately, there are a few things about the study that don’t exactly apply to me (or most likely you, and definitely not professional cyclists). These participants were mostly older people who were biking relatively slowly. These were participants with an average age of 70 biking at a “comfortable pace” of about 50-60 RPM for 30 minutes.
I think the argument that bicycling is easier than walking and that performing cognitive tasks releases a little bit of extra catecholamines probably doesn’t apply in the latter group who is probably focusing quite a bit on form and already maxing out on catecholamines.
Alas, I don’t think this study is going to make my life any easier. That being said, if I get tired or bored enough I may try some multitasking. I don’t even care how crazy I’m going to seem when I keep whispering numbers forwards and backwards or yell “go” everytime I see a blue jersey.