• Endure

    If Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink, Outliers, Tipping Point and several other best-selling pop-science books) says of someone else’s work: “This book is AMAZING” then there are two likely explanations. Either he is just being kind and supportive to a friend and compatriot, or he genuinely meant it. I firmly believe he meant it, it really is an excellently researched and brilliantly written book.

    Great book

    Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than doing a marathon. My body isn’t built for long distance running. I’ve done a couple of decathlons in my time and the last event of the weekend – the 1,500m – was among the most unpleasant experiences of my life. On the final straight I was desperately willing my legs to respond to the cheers of the supporters, but I felt like I was running in treacle; I could barely tell whether my strides were propelling me forwards or backwards. And that’s just a mile! Decent marathon runners manage to keep up that pace for the full 26 miles. Those decathlons are probably the closest I have come to pushing my body to its absolutes limits and that is the subject of Alex Hutchinson’s great new book published last year.

    Marathon Runners

    The full title of the book is Endure – Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. As a seasoned sports journalist and excellent long distance runner, Alex is extremely well positioned to write THE authoritative account of the current state of international efforts of sports’ scientists, physiologists and neuroscientists to help elite athletes squeeze yet more out of their bodies. And he really does write beautifully. As someone who has written a few popular science, I found myself awe-struck on his ability to quickly, concisely and effortlessly convey quite complex scientific ideas; clearly conveying the basic principle without allowing the explanation to be cluttered by too much pedantic detail. It seems easy to write that way, but if you know the full science story behind the compelling narratives, you realise how deftly he has whittled it down to the bare essentials.

    The scientist in me found the structure of the book very appealing, progressing as it does systematically through all the systems of the human body that could be letting an athlete down as their legs go to mush. The integrity of the muscle tissue, the supply of glucose and oxygen, the build up of lactate and, last but not least, the brain. These chapters are sandwiched between the compelling tale of the incredible efforts (not to mention expenditure of huge sums of money) that have gone into trying to get the world’s elite marathon runners through the fabled distance in a seemingly impossible time of 2 hours or less. And along the way we encounter free-divers, cyclists, triathletes, Antarctic explorers and platoons of military guinea pigs. But that’s not all. It has an additional attribute that may not have been foreseen by either its author or its previous reviewers.

    Freediving

    I noticed that, on days where I had read a few pages from this book, merely reading about the many seemingly illusory limits of human performance was sufficient to boost my own endurance at the gym, playing 6-a-side football or running 10km cross-country around Richmond Park. Just by priming my mind with the knowledge that the main influence in limiting human athletic performance is the brain applying the brakes – well in advance of the real breaking point – seemed to be sufficient to reduce my perception of exertion. When I warm up in the gym, I usually start with 20 minutes on the cross-trainer, alternating between 60 seconds of slow strides with high resistance to warm up my arms and 60 seconds of fast strides (200+/min) at low resistance to warm up my legs. By the half way point I’m inevitably dripping with sweat and wishing for it to all be over. But on days where I’d been reading in ENDURE about the science of athletic performance, my perception of exertion was extremely low. I found myself wanting to push myself harder – with a 2 min sprint rather than 1 min – and even then it didn’t hurt. When playing football on ENDURE days I was sprinting up and down the length of the pitch so much that the people trying to mark me just gave up. And on the 10 km runs, for the first time in nearly a decade, rather than my usual constant refrain of “can we go slower” to get my running partner, whenever an adrenaline surge sent him upping the pace and pulling away from me, it was him putting in the request to ease the pace down a notch or two.

    Running in Richmond Park involves a lot of this

    For many years I’ve been spreading the message during my brain talks that just knowing the basic neuroscience of memory, decision making, nutrition, hydration, sleep etc can really help to Sort Your Brain Out. So it’s extremely gratifying to come across a new string to my bow. I usually never re-read books, so now that I’ve finished ENDURE I might have to scribble down some of the key insights on post-it notes and stick them on the wall of my bathroom. That’s one of the strategies my brother-in-law uses to keep his own athleticism up at incredibly high levels. And given that he’s on the verge of competing in the Olympics next year, if it works for him, I’m sure it could help me achieve my own much more modest athletic goals: which is simply to keep by body fit enough to keep exercising, injury free, to avail myself of the mood boosting benefits of endorphins and endocannabinoids until my dying day.

    In addition to these monthly brain blogs I regularly tweet
    about interesting neuroscience research to hit the lay press and, I know I’ve
    been promising this for ages, but I really am getting very close to launching
    my first YouTube channel: Virtual Vive Sanity. You’d be amazed how much work
    goes into filming, editing and launching a weekly 60-min episode of
    neuroscience-enhanced Virtual Reality game reviews. The reason for the delay is
    I’m reluctant to launch until I’ve got all the bugs and gremlins eliminated
    from my workflow in order that I can release a brand new episode every Tuesday
    for at least a year. Watch this space. It will definitely have been launched by
    the end of the summer…

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  • Gyms of the Future – Good for Body, Good for Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    healthy brainExercise is good for health, we all know that. That said it is also clear that the whole world is utterly fixated on the benefits to the body. The considerable benefits of physical exercise for the brain are invariably overlooked. As proof of these benefits continues to trickle in and the exact mechanisms by which exercise improves brain function gradually makes itself apparent, I’m guessing we’ll find ourselves increasingly inclined to take regular exercise for our brain’s sake. This article reveals insights from a recent report I wrote about why using high tempo music can naturally stimulate the brain to help you exercise harder with a lesser perception of exertion. I also argue that we might as well further enhance this effect by distracting ourselves with on screen activities that give the brain a work out whilst we’re at it.

    lactic 1When it comes to keeping motivated in the gym, the name of the game is distraction from the discomfort caused by lactic acid building up in the muscles when the capacity of aerobic exercise is exceeded and anaerobic metabolism takes over (releasing energy without oxygen). If you are not distracted, each minute of moderately intensive exercise can seem to take an age to tick by. If, on the other hand, your mind is elsewhere, then the minutes can fly by and you can clock up a decent amount of time doing continuous exercise without really noticing the burn in your muscles so much. The bottom line is: if the brain’s attentional resources are focused intently on something in the outside world – listening to upbeat music or watching an engaging TV programme, for instance –  then it limits the amount of brain resources available for sensing what is going in inside your body. This results in a decrease in “perception of exertion” for any given workout as a direct consequence and boosts your mood (so long as it’s music that suits your personal tastes).

    CountdownI gave a talk at last year’s Fitness Industry Association annual conference in Rotherham’s amazing MAGNA Centre (ex-steel works) where I suggested that if people work out harder when their mind is elsewhere – why not go for a double whammy and actually give them some brain teasers to do to as the distraction from the pain associated with moderately intense exercise? All it would take is to have one of the screens in the cardio section of any gym displaying a series of number / word / logic puzzles.

    This vision was inspired by my own experience of playing along with Channel 4’s Countdown whilst pounding the treadmill – I completely lost track of time and clocked up a much longer-than-normal running session (for the benefit of non-UK citizens: Countdown is a British game show where a pair of contestants must create the longest word possible from a sequence of 9 randomly selected letters and a bit of mental arithmetic with randomly selected numbers). I did this three times a week and within a month I was regularly able to find words as long as those found by the on-screen contestants.

    basal_gangliaLast month, brain & fitness became the hot topic yet again when I was unexpectedly commissioned to write a report on the evidence for and against the anecdotal observation that fast tempo music seems to do something to the brain which enables people to get more out of their workout. Part of the effect boils down to plain old distraction, as discussed above. But delving deeper into the neuroscience literature revealed that whenever the brain perceives a regular beat, the basal ganglia become activated, increasing the amount of connectivity between other brain areas: those involved in creating the sound of music (auditory cortex) with those that trigger bodily movements (motor cortex).

    The basal ganglia are the brain structures that are compromised in Parkinson’s disease, which involves difficulty initiating movements, resulting in a shuffling gait and jerky limb control. So with this in mind the responsiveness of the basal ganglia to a music beat is a likely mechanism through which the sounds impact upon exercise to produce the “ergogenic” properties.

    swimming to musicThese ergogenic properties of music, particularly effective in the 162-168 bpm range, enable people to exercise faster, stronger, harder and for longer whether they are running, doing weights, cycling, circuits and even swimming. If the part of the brain involved in initiating movements (basal ganglia) is responsive to the beat, then when that beat is rapid, the muscles of the body are presumably primed to match the pace set by that beat. Creating an exercise playlist where successive tunes gradually increase the tempo should allow you to enjoy a harder work out but with a reduced perception of exertion. More gain for less pain!

    To find out the bpm of your favourite tunes I would recommend using this free, simple, but ingenious, web resource: BeatFinder. Just position your cursor over the big red button and then click along in time with the beat of the tune.

    Catch me on Twitter to hear of amazing breakthroughs in brain research every day.

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