So I started too late, I think, to ever have the body of a serious athlete. And that’s okay. I’ve accomplished an awful lot in my life and you can love lots of things and not be able to do it all. Life is short, after all. Sometimes I feel at a loss competing against people who’ve been lifelong athletes. They have habits, skills, and bodies better suited to racing than me. But I must confess whenever I read about the role of the brain in athletic accomplishment, I think there might be hope.
I’ve got a lot of determination. I’m smart. And I can focus when I need to.
A few links crossed my path this past week in the category of “training your brain for competition” and I thought I’d share.
Train Your Brain for Resilience (Runners World)
“Back in October, I had the opportunity to visit a lab in San Diego where some of the toughest people in the world come to have their brains scanned. For the last few years, Martin Paulus and his colleagues have been studying elite performers like Navy SEALs (who train nearby) and some of the top multi-day adventure racers in the world. The subjects perform a series of cognitive tests while an fMRI scanner records their brain activity, and Paulus and his team occasionally interfere with an “aversive stimulus” such as restricting their breathing.
As I describe in an article in the current issue of Outside, they’ve found some pretty cool patterns in the brain activity of elite performers — what they believe are the hallmarks of resilience, the ability to perform optimally under adverse conditions. It has to do with the interplay between different areas of the brain that affect “interoception,” which is the brain’s real-time monitoring of how the body is doing and feeling.”
In a series of studies starting in 2009, Paulus and his colleagues put hardened Marines, elite adventure racers, and regular Joes through various cognitive tasks while monitoring their brain activity in real time with an fMRI scanner. To provide an “aversive stimulus”—a scaled-down version of the stress they’d experience when coming under enemy fire or taking a wrong turn during a multi-day race—the researchers occasionally interfered with subjects’ breathing, restricting airflow to masks they were wearing.
The subjects knew the sensation was coming but not always when. Some members of the control group panicked and had to be removed from the scanner, but the Marines and the adventure racers handled the scenario with ease. In the fMRI scanner, they showed higher activation in the insular cortex immediately before the restricted breathing started. They had, essentially, prepared themselves for the unpleasant sensation. Then, while it was happening, the same region of the brain showed lower activ-ity and carried on with business as usual. “That kind of anticipation and preparation is critical,” Paulus says.
The goal, then, is to train your brain to anticipate, and not overreact, to unexpected stress. For a whitewater kayaker, that means staying calm and making the right strokes after getting caught in a hole; for a runner, it means pushing through the pain to stay on pace late in a race. Paulus believes that neurofeedback training, in which subjects try to alter their resiliency-related brain patterns based on real-time data from an fMRI scanner, is not far off.
For now, the most promising technique is one that’s already familiar to many professional athletes: meditation. Paulus’s latest study put 30 Marine recruits through a program in mindfulness, an approach to self-awareness with roots in Buddhist teachings. “You learn to monitor how your body actually feels while suspending judgment about it,” Paulus explains.
In the study, subjects followed an eight-week course that taught simple breathing exercises, sitting and walking meditation, yoga, and techniques like “body scans,” in which they focused awareness on each part of their bodies, progressing from head to toe.
Brain scans before and after revealed that the trainees acquired some of the same brain patterns that the Marines and adventure racers had shown in the earlier experiments. More surprising, the changes persisted a year later. The biggest effects were in the MPC, which moderates knee-jerk responses to external stimuli.
Of course, there are many routes to the same goal. “There are similarities between mindfulness and the state of focus that athletes achieve through long hours of repetitive training,” says Christopher Bergland, a triple-Ironman champion who covered 153.8 miles to set a 24-hour treadmill world record in 2004. That state of mindfulness helped him push his endurance to new levels, he says.