How can brain training improve physical and mental performance?
This week the topic is brain training to improve ‘performance’ by hacking into mental fatigue by building resilience. This is called Brain Endurance Training or BET or cognitive loading training. I have written ‘performance’ in inverted commas as these techniques were designed and tested on professional athletes and is referred to as ‘Neuro Doping‘ However, brain endurance training programs offer heaps of performance advantages to amateur sports/fitness enthusiasts, CEOs, performers, stroke victims, students, in addition to elite athletes.
In fact, mental resilience plays a role in for most people in some way, for example;doing exams, improving mental and physical resilience, alertness, will power, ability to focus, driving, looking after kids, basically anything where fatigue is a limiting factor.
When does mental fatigue affect the average person?
When a person is mentally fatigued their patience is low so they are much more likely to have emotional outburst of tears and rage. It is relatively easy to do something, but it is much harder to have the will power to not do something (ability to inhibit unwanted behavior). The pre-frontal cortex in the frontal lobe is the main player in inhibiting unwanted behaviors. The ability to inhibit becomes much much harder when mental fatigue sets in, as does making decisions.
When I or anyone is on a diet mental fatigue is induced when ‘naughty’ food is around as we need a huge amount of brain power to inhibit the urge to eat forbidden foods. When certain parts of the brain fatigue, we give in and over eat. Sticking to a diet is important for professional athletes and performers, along with grueling training regimes. With about 12 million people in the UK being on a diet at a given time, mental fatigue is a big player in having the will power to stick to a diet. As only 1 in 5 people successfully lose weight, something is going wrong somewhere and it is usually giving in to food, rather than skipping a workout.
With respect to movement, not just sport when mental fatigue sets in physical fatigue sets in and everything feels more difficult to do. Meaning training is cut short or workouts are skipped. When it comes to certain exercises like a plank, a handstand or running long distance, you can ask ‘Did I give in becasue my brain thought I was tired or was I genuinely biologically tired?’. When it comes to weight training the last couple of reps are the ones that really count, so imagine how your training and gains could progress if you could delay fatigue and squeeze out 5 more reps.
Following a stroke or a traumatic brain injury (TBI), after the acute stage is over, which can be a year later, mental and physical fatigue is one of the chief complaints. This means using neurological training to increase mental resilience and reduce fatigue has rehabilitation potential and as it doesn’t involve physical activity it can be used while recovering from an injury.
The research and protocols I am going to describe later are from Grant Hayes, founder and creator of sswitch neuro performance solutions and the brains behind the nervous system training app, SOMA NPT, which I have been experimenting with since April 2018. The app is available on iTunes HERE . Grant works with professional athletes so the terminology and description can put the average person off as they think that this kind of app and training is only for sport, but it is not.
Some basic parameters and terms
To measure fatigue, something called a psychomotor vigilance test (PVT) is the standard reading or variable which is used as it measures the response to a visual stimulus and anything slower than 500ms (1/2 a second) is counted as a ‘lapse’. The more fatigued a person, the slower they are and the more lapses they have. This can be in the military, for truck drivers, athletes and pilots. PVTs are used in scientific studies too, often to test the affects of sleep deprivation on reaction times.
This is a video of a PVT in SOMA as it is easier to see the process.
In terms of goals to set sports performance, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are needed in order to track progress. A KPI is a set of quantifiable measures use to gauge or compare performance in terms of meeting goals, Outside of sport KPIs are used all over the place such as in companies to monitor progress and performance. KPIs in sport are of course specific to that particular sport.
For driving sports some example KPIs would be, response to visual and auditory stimuli, hand eye coordination, decision making and lap time. For power lifting or olympic lifting example would be max lift, strong man would be max lift, total numbers of repetitions in a given time and number of lifts of a given weight before fatigue. Combat sports for example hand eye/foot eye coordination, response to visual stimulus, decision making, ability to endure being on the ropes or ground. Team sports like rugby and football, number of successful passes or tackles, goals and missed goal, successful passes, failed passes, time in opponents half of pitch, sprint speed of individual players.
A pre basline test or variable is needed which is something you DO NOT train during the program, then it is re-tested at the end of the program to see if it improved without it being trained in the program. For example
The neurological drills that are chosen depend on the sport or activity to improve, the KPI. For a power-lifter for example neurological drills which load the brain, have an element of choice and are boring, such as a stroop (see video below) or an inverted stroop test would be used for long periods as the sport requires lifting huge weights. Ball sports for example would use drills involving training visual skills, rapid response to visual stimuli, visual choice and using both eyes together.
There are 34 drills in the SOMA app and they have a wide variety of application not just for sports. I will be using it shortly to help a lady who is recovering from a stroke.
The neurological drills in the SOMA app are incorporated into a training program, with drills being done before training for a given time, during training and post training, to ensure fatigue is reached each session. A PVT is used at the end to measure fatigue. The brain then starts to build a tolerance to fatigue and that is where the magic is! Like any training program there are many different ways to set up a program and different programs contain different physical and neurological exercises depending on goals.
Below is a 1 min video briefly showing the SOMA app and a stroop test.
There are endless goals that I or anyone wishing to improve performance could set, eg best time or personal best for; 100m sprint, 10k run, number of pull ups, bench press, deadlift, squat, accuracy for shooting, ability to focus on work, long jump, vertical jump, triathlon and so on.
My first experiment with SOMA NPT
I did a 4 week program in May and using the SOMA NPT app, in conjunction with gymnastics training I have achieved the following, I was testing the water as I am skeptical about many things, I also wanted to see what happens when I do 50 min of neurological training every 2-3 days and If I can easily integrate it with training. I have only KPIs here, not a pre-baseline reading, so it wasn’t a ‘proper experiment’.
- Holding a handstand for 1min 30s (initial time 45s) (endurance in shoulders and being upside down)
- 20% improvement in vertical jump
- 8 steps walking on my hands (balance upside down). Could do 1 or 2 at start
- A side somersault and a straight front somersault (ability to jump in different directions, land and inhibit fear)
- Having a diet cheat day once every three weeks rather than every week (impulsive behavior)
- Not eating or wanting chocolate for 3 months (addiction, impulsive behavior).
- I haven’t lost my temper or even got angry and am generally more patient (losing control)
With any kind of intense brain training you get worse, more irritated and angrier before you get better, that’s why an absolute minimum of 4 weeks plus a rest period is needed to see the improvement
So whats the history behind using computer based neurological training and fatigue resistance?
During the past decade in the sporting world, the attention and interest for neurocognitive processes (AKA brain training) relating to sport performance has drastically increased. There is a limit to what can be achieved by physical training and doping with performance enhancing drugs. Several studies have recently proved that neurocognitive interventions using computer-based or app-based tasks can produce significant changes in brain processes and affect fatigue perception. Therefore, there has been a lot of focus and attention on strategies to hack the brain to alter perception of effort and thus fatigue in order to boost performance outcomes.
These hacks can be used by anyone wishing to conquer ‘fatigue’ in order to improve performance on the field, in the gym or in the workplace
Some of those interventions, aimed to induced mental fatigue (defined as a psychobiological state caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive activity and characterized by subjective feelings of “tiredness” and “lack of energy”), have reportedly proved to decrease physical performance. It has been argued that prolonged continuous cognitive activity (from 30 up to 90 min) of specific cognitive tasks, would produce a neurocognitive overload in the brain and thus alter one’s perception during any subsequent physical task.
The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a way of measuring physical activityintensity level. Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working and this is used to assess fatigue. Although overloading the brain has been proven deleterious for physical performance in its acute phase, there is, however, evidence that repetitions of acute stimuli in the form of organized training, may produce an adaptation that would result highly beneficial for performance.
Basically hormesis – you deliberately induce mental fatigue in training over 4-6 weeks the brain becomes more resilient to fatigue. If your brain decides you are tired then you feel tired, that is why training the brain to endure fatigue with translate into the ability to endure physical fatigue.
Research is vital in understanding the effects of brain fatigue in athletes. Studies involving Soma NPT, shows how neurocognitive load alters the way athletes respond to their physical training and importantly induced mental fatigue, the full details and data can be found HERE
The outcome of this investigation produces evidence that that prolonged exposure to specific neurocognitive tasks can produce alteration in perception of effort and thus produce changes in performance outcomes. Similarly, it provided evidence that constructing training plans including neurocognitive interventions will benefit athletes by making them more mentally resilient to fatigue, without affecting their physical training load and routine.
How do athletes do their neuro cognitive load training and how can you or I do one?
First of all you need a goal and a KPI, something you want to achieve and a way to monitor your progress. Then you need neurological exercises to do, something to measure fatigue and monitor all your results
In professional sport the goal is winning and the KPIs are sport specific. My goals were to learn some sommersaults and control impulsive behavior. My KPIs were jumping and handstand (handstands and vertical jumps are fundamental gymnastics skills. You will have different goals, a different sport and different KPIs.
I am being a case study from a colleague, called Theresa who is making me a program using exercise and SOMA to improve power, so this is a sports specific goal, and this is more structured than the initial program I made for myself while I was testing the app. I will be using a Beast Sensor to measure the power as I can attach it to myself or a bar to collect data. The pre baseline measurements for me are max power rowing and max power on a watt bike, as I do not row or cycle, so I will test at the start and at the end . Other sports programs could include strength or endurance goals and the exercise sets in between the neurological exercises, as well as the neurological exercises would be different.
I am doing a study using exercise and SOMA NPT on a lady who had a stroke, a female rugby player and a strongman/power lifter.
The studies are 6 weeks long, but most people see results in 4 weeks.In elite sport a 5% improvement is needed for a method to ‘have worked’. For the rest of us and myself higher % improvements are expected.
Thank you for reading
If you have any questions please get in touch