How to Use the Köhler Effect to Improve Athletic Performance

A few miles from my house, there’s a proving ground known by Los Angeles cyclists as “The Switchbacks.”

If you can make it up this windy, uphill road in less than 10 minutes, you’re pretty good.

If you can make it up in less than 8 minutes, you’re better than pretty good.

And if you break 7 minutes, you’re a freak — but you also likely didn’t do it alone.

A quick look at the route on Strava reveals that very few of even the sub-8-minute riders pulled the feat off solo. The vast majority were in a pack.

When I broke 8 minutes, I was on a weekly group ride called “The Donut,” rolling in the middle of a leg-snappingly fast peloton.

Cycling experts will tell you that when you ride in a group, you go faster thanks to all kinds of aerodynamic mumbo jumbo, but on that particular day, physics had nothing to do with my accomplishment.

These guys had dropped me on The Switchbacks dozens of times before, and I was in no mood to be dropped again, so I buried myself deep in the pain cave, held on for dear life, and broke the 8-minute barrier.

In a long-winded, macho kind of way, my experience is an example of the Köhler Effect — a phenomenon in which an individual works harder in a group than on his or her own, motivated largely by the desire not to be the least competent participant.

“You’re only as good as your weakest link,” explains sports psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus, author of Guidebook to Gold, “and no one wants to be the weakest link.”

The Köhler Effect was identified and coined in 1926 by German psychologist Otto Köhler.

In his experiments, he asked members of a rowing club to do standing curls to exhaustion. Sometimes they lifted solo, other times he had two- or three-person groups lift a long bar together with two or three times the weight.

He found that the groups had more endurance than the individuals, suggesting that even the weaker participants were stepping up.

Even though the research centered on the positive power of collaboration, there’s also a slight whiff of friendly competition to whole thing.

Testament to this idea is the fact that Köhler’s eponymous effect declined when the gap between the most fit and least fit rowers in the group was too wide — we’re less motivated to try when we know we’re going to get stomped.

“For anyone to exert effort at anything, you have to believe that you can take that next step forward,” says Dr. Perlus. “If I get on the court with Serena Williams, I’ll benefit from the experience, but I’m not going to push myself to the next level like I will if I’m on the court with someone I think I can match or beat.”

The Key to the Köhler Effect

There’s a whole separate body of work surrounding an opposing theory called the Ringelmann Effect.

French agricultural engineer Max Ringelmann did experiments involving men pulling on a rope and discovered that as the number of men pulling the rope increased, the less forcefully everyone tended to pull.

Also known as “social loafing,” the theory is that when you share the spotlight, you can hide.

“You don’t think you’re going to get caught,” Perlus says, “so you try to get away with what you think you can get away with!”

No, this doesn’t invalidate the Köhler Effect. Ringelmann’s experiment removed that competitive aspect, allowing participants to hide behind the performance of others.

But therein lies the key to the Köhler Effect: For it to work, there needs to be a feeling of competitiveness.

How to Choose Your Training Partner

An article in the European Journal of Social Psychology also points out that while the Köhler Effect focuses on participants with compatible skill levels, Ringelmann’s rope pullers were a more random group.

So again, if you want to take advantage of the Köhler Effect, pick your partner(s) wisely.

You’re looking for someone just a little better than you — but still in your league.

And if you’re in a situation where the buddy system doesn’t apply — like if you’re competing or working out on your own — pick someone you don’t know, like maybe that woman wearing the rainbow tutu at your 5K, and it’s game on!

But it’s probably best not to announce to the person that you’ve declared war.

As Dr. Perlus puts it: “Pick that one person in the room you think you can take on. You’ll silently latch on to someone to increase your performance — like a secret partnership.”

Stalkerish? Perhaps. But effective!

How to Train with Your Training Partner

Also keep in mind that the hierarchy in your relationship may not be black-and-white.

Both you and your nemesis, er, training partner probably bring strengths and weaknesses to the table, and recognizing them can help you both train more effectively.

The guy I ride with most, Kevin, crushes me on sprints, but I tend to prevail in endurance events. He motivates me to go faster and I motivate him to hold on longer.

Another interesting wrinkle to the Köhler Effect is that if you’re the stronger link, it’s probably best to keep your trap shut. A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research paired participants up online doing exercise video games.

(The fact that the “game” consisted of a prolonged plank exercise suggests that, unlike other geeks, these researchers did not own PS4s as children.)

The results showed that the Köhler Effect was, indeed, in effect — until the more capable partner started offering encouragement.

At that point, the results dipped. Researchers aren’t sure why that happened, but they suggest that the weaker partner might have thought the encouragement was intended for someone else.

In my opinion, it’s more likely that he or she felt patronized, so they took their toys and went home.

When to Go It Alone

Having firmly established the benefits of exercising with others, it’s important to note that sometimes it’s still better to sweat solo.

Indeed, I spend much of my time on the bike alone. It allows me to build base miles and process my thoughts from the day.

But when it’s time to ramp up my training intensity, I look to group rides — or I enlist a friend to join me with the implicit goal of either crushing them or completely destroying myself trying to crush them.

Is that a healthy attitude? I’m not sure, but I assume Köhler would approve.