Because Science: Having a Rival Makes You Run Faster

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Whether it’s Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo on the soccer field, or Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird on the basketball court, great sports rivalries are not only entertaining to watch but actually boost athlete’s game performance. But it's not just professional athletes who benefit from rivalries. According to a new study, even lesser-known rivalries between can push runners to perform at higher levels.


"How we behave in competition situations depends on our relationship and history of interaction with our opponent," says Gavin Kilduff, of New York University's (NYU) Stern School of Business. "This suggests that we may be able to boost our own levels of motivation and performance by either forming rivalries or harnessing the ones we already have. It might also get us to think about whether other individuals in our lives may view us as their rivals."

In his new study, published last week in Social and Psychosocial and Personality Science, Kilduff analyzed rivalries between runners using two different methods. First, he surveyed runners online to determine their feelings about their rivals and define the characteristics of the rivalry. Then he analyzed the results from 184 races over a 6-year period in a U.S. running club to measures rivalries against changes in performance.

The average runner claims to have three rivals, according to the survey. "I think some people may find it surprising that runners actually pick one another out at these kinds of races, but my experiences speaking with them suggests they indeed do," Kilduff says. The runners who identified as having rivals said that rivalry motivated them to train harder and race faster.

According to online survey data, factors such as similarity (in age and gender), repeated competition, and closely decided contest lead to increased rivalries. This information helped Kilduff pair rivals from three years of race data. Then, he reviewed three years of subsequent data to see how the rivals' performances changed over that time. Kilduff found that runners ran faster in races where they were pitted against their rivals.

While there are some positive benefits to having a healthy rivalry, Kilduff also notes that other research suggests people are more likely to be unethical or engage in risky behavior to outperform their rival.