Why Competition Beats Support

To get the most out of a workout partner, get competitive.

Competition tends to be divisive: You either crave the adrenaline rush of head-to-head pressure or you shy away from it. But despite where on the spectrum you fall, new research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests we could all benefit from a dose of dog-eat-dog. Competition was a much better motivator for exercise than friendly support, the research found.

“Competition works because we naturally compare ourselves to people like us and use them to evaluate whether we're doing better or worse than we would expect,” says Damon Centola, Ph.D., the study’s author. If we see other people toning up faster, attending more fitness classes, or dropping more weight than us? This gives us a new goal.

But it’s time we re-think competition as we know it a bit: “There is a great deal of misunderstanding of what competitiveness is and how it influences behavior,” says Mark Aoyagi, Ph.D., director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver. “In the United States, we often associate it with ‘winning’ and sometimes use it synonymously with ‘winning at all costs.’”

This, however, misses the true meaning of competition, which derives from the Latin ‘competere' or ‘strive together,’ he says. “The true meaning of competition is actually much closer to what we would currently consider its antonym: cooperation. It is really about coming together to bring out the best in one another.”

So how do you infuse a competitive spirit into your workout that will fine-tune (not throw off) your performance? Our experts weigh in.

1. Set Process Goals: “Rather than being competitive about your speed on the treadmill as compared to the person next to you, be competitive about being at the gym the most regularly,” suggests Aoyagi. ‘Process goals’ like shooting to arrive at the gym earlier or recovering right (which Aoyagi says is often seen as a weakness for those who view competition as synonymous with conquest) will help you attain fitness goals faster. “If you focus your competitiveness on the outcome—looking better or lifting more weight—you are almost certain to become frustrated or burned out by overtraining because results don’t come as quickly or consistently as we would like.”

2. Track Your Data, But Share It, Too: Centola says that the successful recipe for competition in his study included a scenario where people competed against other groups. “This activates people to put pressure on each other.” An app like Strava allows you to record your results, compare them to others, and compete with top athletes. Just don’t get warped in a ‘beat them’ mindset: “Your competitors are there to bring out your best, not as a threat to your ability to ‘win,’” reminds Aoyagi.

3. Compete Against Yourself: “Competitiveness is about improving yourself, not beating someone else,” says Aoyagi. For each workout, set one to three improvement goals—trying to beat yourself by one rep, one second, or one more jump, suggests Jamye Shelton Pelosi , Psy.D, a sport psychologist at Rutgers

4. Be In The Know: The more we see people doing something that we're not doing, the more concerned we get that we may be falling behind the curve, explains Centola. In his study, success came not because the competitive crew was aggressive, but because they were aware of leaders and wanted to keep up, he says. Curious about a new training technique? Ask an instructor or a coach what the buzz is all about and try it out. Not ready for the leaderboard in fitness class? Eyeball it even if you’re not on it to know where top performers stand.

5. Live By the Olympic Motto: “The motto is not 'faster, higher, stronger than your competitor'—just faster, higher, stronger,” Aoyagi says. “Competition, not conquest.” Ace this motto by establishing a baseline for yourself, suggests Shelton Pelosi. “Find out where you are so that you can be realistic about what you decide to pursue.”