Fitness Superstitions: Magic or Mind Games?

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
One of my running buddies has worn the same shirt to every race for the past decade. Regardless of weather or fashion, she's convinced that the old pink Nike tank is directly tied to her performance on the course. I have a weird compulsion that requires me to always end a run at an even time on my stopwatch: If I’m back home at 38 minutes, I’ll add another quarter-mile to get to 40.
Superstitions aren't just for amateurs: Professional athletes are notorious for their strange rituals. Michael Jordan wore his "lucky" college basketball shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform for this entire NBA career, and golf pro Tiger Woods always sported a red shirt when competing on Sundays. Tennis star Serena Williams bounces the ball exactly five times before the first serve, and must tie her shoes in the same intricate way for each game. Baseball legend Babe Ruth had to step on second base every time he ran in from the outfield, and he had a firm rule against lending out his baseball bats because he believed each one had only so many hits stored in it.
The Psychology of Superstitions
Gallup poll found that one in four people acknowledged they were superstitious. Even the most practical-minded people may find themselves walking around ladders, cringing when a mirror gets broken or crossing the street to avoid a black cat's path. Why do so many of us cling to these seemingly illogical, quirky beliefs?
According to Stuart Vyse, PhD, author of Believing in Magic: The Science of Superstition, most superstitions are rooted in the desire to have some control of an otherwise uncertain situation. "We are often in situations in life where something really important is about to happen, we've prepared for it as best we can, but it's still uncertain; it's still unclear," Vyse told WebMD. "Superstitions provide people with the sense that they've done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for."
Vyse points out that there's a difference between superstitions and rituals. "The dividing line is whether you give some kind of magical significance to the ritual," Vyse said. A superstition is when someone assigns a paranormal power to something, such as believing that knocking on wood will keep something bad from happening or that using a certain basketball will impact the score of a game. A ritual, on the other hand, is a certain routine someone follows to improve performance in sports, academics, career or some other pursuit. For example, you might repeat positive quotes to boost your self-esteem, meditate to calm your mind before a stressful work meeting or wear flattering clothing to maximize your comfort and confidence during a workout.
Whatever goal you're working toward—to finish a race, avoid junk food, beat yesterday's step count or clean out the fridge—there's nothing wrong with relying on a superstition to help you achieve it, however silly it may seem. Some research has shown that it could even boost performance. After all, a superstition is really just a habit with a little dose of "magic" thrown in…and we can all benefit from embracing healthy habits. So go ahead and use that lucky water bottle that gets you through spin class, wear those crazy leggings that make you run faster and blast that song that helps you lift more weight.
Real-life Superstitions
Just in time for Friday the 13th, we asked a few of our fitness friends if they have any health-related superstitions that dictate their training or eating plans.
"I’m very particular when it comes to my routine the night before and morning of a long run. I plan all of my clothes ahead of time (including my lucky running skirt that I always wear on long runs), and even put out my breakfast so it’s ready to go. I eat the same exact thing every time: A banana and two packs of my favorite instant oatmeal. (I know instant isn’t the greatest choice, but it works for me, so I don’t deviate.)"
Jen Mueller, SparkPeople's Community Director
"My superstition is about eating in the morning. My grandmother used to tell me that it's bad luck to talk about your dreams before you eat anything. I think she was just trying to get me to eat breakfast! I am now 41, and I still do not talk about my dreams until eating something first."
Toby Amidor, registered dietitian, nutrition expert and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen
"My favorite food superstition is one I learned about several years back when I was developing a nutrition presentation about the health benefits of spices. I found out that hundreds of years ago, people believed that placing a nutmeg in your left armpit prior to a social gathering could help you attract a significant other."
Tricia Silverman, Registered Dietitian, Fitness Instructor
"I am a competitive powerlifter and coach. When I get dressed to train and compete, I always follow the same sequence. I put on my right sock and right shoe, then I put on my left sock and left shoe, then I tie my right shoe and then I tie my left shoe. Some people might call this a superstition, but it's really a ritual. As I do it, I free my mind from the task and center myself and begin to think about the workout or meet. By following the same pattern again and again, things become automatic, and by the time I have tied my left shoe, I am totally mentally ready to go. It is really a Zen thing. I make the superstition/ritual a positive instead of a negative, such as if I wear a different shirt I lose."
Robert S. Herbst, Weightlifting Competitor and Coach
"The day before a running race, I pick my race socks and wear them during the run that day and then again during the race. If I don't run the day before, I wear the socks all day long and then during the race. I picked this up from having a variety of sock models and ages at home, and sometimes certain socks perform differently, so this was my way of making sure I'll race in a good pair."
Kyle Kranz, Running Coach
"I play roller derby at a competitive level and I have my favorite pair of fishnet stockings that I wear for all bouts/games. After five years, I get a lot of flack about how little there is left to them, but I just feel like I skate faster and feel stronger when I have them on."
Bianca from Baby & Me Fitness
"For a race, I always start with the same songs: 1. Blue Monday by New Order, 2. Love Is a Battlefield by Pat Benatar and 3. In the End by Linkin Park."
Erinn Whitehead, Fitness Trainer
Do you have any superstitions related to health, fitness or nutrition? Share them in the comments!