Why being chased boosts performance – the sports psychologist’s view

Leading sports psychologist Dr Rhonda Cohen tells us why the feeling of being chased can be such a good motivator for runners.


Wings for Life World Run’s unique sports format has proved to be a powerful motivating factor for many participants.

The feeling of being chased by the Catcher Car – in a race that has a moving finish line – has led to thousands of people running further and faster than they ever thought possible.


More than 2,400 people responded to a poll asking for their experiences in the Wings for Life World Run and the results were certainly eye-catching.


Of those participants reporting better than expected results:


  • 24.3% ran 5 kilometres (km) further than their original target
  • 38.1% ran 5-15 km further
  • 28.7% ran an extra 15-30 km
  • 8.9% ran more than 30 km beyond their expectations



Those findings reflect the results of Elise Molvik, the Norwegian amateur runner who won the women’s race in Norway in 2014.

Molvik, then only 18 and a medical student, shocked everyone – and most of all herself – by clocking 54.79 km before being hauled back by the catcher car in Stavanger.


But what is it about the feeling of being chased that makes so many people out-perform their expectations? According to Middlesex University’s Dr. Rhonda Cohen it’s all about the fear factor.

“Research identifies fear as a tool within our evolutionary survival kit,” Dr Cohen explains. “Being chased creates fear, which in turn acts as a powerful motivator.”


Q: What is the body's physical response to being chased?

“The body’s physical response to being chased results in a rise in adrenaline which gives people a great burst of energy, an increase in blood pressure and a speeding in up of heart rate. In addition, the stress hormone, cortisol is released. Due to higher levels of oxygen in the muscles, people feel stronger.”


Q: Does it still work if, rationally, people know you're not really in physical danger? In other words, can you trick yourself into better performances?

“Fear can be real or perceived so people don’t have to be in real physical danger to experience the psychological and physiological effects. When we face a fear that we know is not dangerous, then we may feel even more confident that we can overcome it. And people who face fears are actually happier according to research.”


Q: So could simulating a chase situation – or adding any other kind of 'fun' element – be a good way to motivate people in training or in a race? 

“Simulation can still create the experience of fear as evidenced in a virtual reality game. Adding a chase simulation enables people to use the powerful motivator of fear in a safe environment. As this is a ‘safe fear’ it can therefore be extremely motivating but also lots of fun. The ‘safe fear’ experience will push us out of our comfort zone which is scary yet it will also greatly challenge people who will end up with a great sense of achievement and accomplishment in having outrun their fears.”


Dr Rhonda Cohen is the author of Sport Psychology: Optimising Human Performance