Podcast #1: Talking Brain Endurance Training (BET) with Walter Staiano

On this episode, Ed Gibbins sits down with Walter Staiano, Rewire’s Chief Scientist, to talk about Brain Endurance Training. Walter has a Ph.D in Psychobiology of Perception of Effort and Exercise Tolerance and is the leading researcher and expert in the practical application of Brain Endurance Training (BET). His research has been featured in best-selling sports performance books including Alex Hutchinson’s ‘Endure’ and he’s worked with Olympic and World Championship teams as well as the British Military.


What is Brain Endurance Training?

BET is a cognitive training specifically designed to increase your resilience toward the sense of fatigue and perception of effort. 

How does BET work?

It works on the principle that the sense of fatigue (either physical or mental) develops in certain areas of the brain and these areas can be targeted by specific cognitive tasks and can induce an adaptation in the brain which will make the athlete more resistant to fatigue. Sense of fatigue is a key component in sport because it critically alters performance by increasing the perception of effort in completing a specific action (both physical and mental).

You were involved in some of the earliest studies on Mental Fatigue, how did you get involved in the field and is there anything that inspired you to do so?

For the most part of my undergraduate and master degrees, I focused my attention on the physical side of fatigue (muscle fatigue). However, I realized that multifaceted topics such as fatigue require multidisciplinary approaches to completely grasp the concept. In this context, by the end of my master degree, I decided to shift my attention toward mental processes of fatigue. It’s there that I met Professor Marcora and I decided to embarque in a journey to understand the link between the mental aspect of fatigue and physical performance. This set the base for what became an innovative and successful line of research across the world on the effect of mental fatigue on physical activity and sport performance. What inspired me the most was that we proved scientifically that exercise exhaustion, in particular in endurance events not mainly caused by physiological factors, instead is the results of complex brain processes that resulted in an increased perception of effort which lead to earlier exhaustion. 

Why is the perception of effort an important component? 

The research so far suggests that rating of perception of effort or perceived exertion (RPE) is a crucial component and a determinant in sport performance. The sensation of how heavy and strenuous a task is perceived is a valid and reliable tool (as good as heart rate).  Marcora et al. (2009) ‘Mental Fatigue Impairs Physical Performance in Humans’ and subsequent work from that group provides compelling evidence for that. RPE is, as well, a simple and reproducible tool for assessing training load in sport as well as military use. 

How do you know BET is working? How does it transfer into sport performance?

For many years, science has demonstrated, and it is well documented, that mental fatigue affects physical performance in several sports. More recently there is evidence that proves using a task that induces mental fatigue as a “training stimulus” to overload the brain will create an adaptation that can be beneficial when translated into sport performance. As a matter of fact, it is very well established in science that the brain can be trained as much as the body and that it is playing a key role in improving sport performance.

There is a lot of controversy in science about the transfer of cognitive drills into the specific sport. So it is sometimes difficult for coaches and sport scientists to understand how much cognitive training can actually help and transfer benefits in a specific sport. BET, however, does not work specifically on improving a specific sport capacity, instead it targets the individual’s ability to become more resilient and resistant to mental fatigue, which has a negative impact on physical performance.

Your studies have investigated the effect of BET on sports ranging from cycling to football. What have been some of your key findings and are there any findings that have surprised you?

In recent years I have collected data using BET training with football and cycling in particular. Some of the key findings that I found really interesting is that BET boosts as much the cognitive performance and the physical performance of the athletes. In the physical domain, it is effective in boosting generic capacities such as Yo-Yo tests as well as more specific ones like sprint and changing of directions. What surprised me is that it seems BET is more effective when athletes need to push while in a fatigued state. That means that this type of training really improves someone’s ability to push their limit by the end of a competition in the case of multiple events on the same day or multiple day events.   

Who can benefit from BET?

Basically everyone who is interested in increasing their level of performance and ability to be more effective in sport or in life and to be more resilient to fatigue. So it can be used by athletes to boost their physical performance, by military personnel or corporate employees to become more effective in taking decisions while in a fatigued state. So the applications are actually very vast. 

In what ways do you see BET assisting your athletes?

BET creates an additional workload outside the physical training routine and it challenges the athlete’s mental ability to tolerate stress and, when able to adapt, increase their resistance against mental and also physical fatigue. You can do these exercises wherever you are and outside regular training hours, as long as you have a mobile phone or an iPad at any time of the day. After a while, it looked that the brain found a way to adapt and handle this additional workload.

What is the most important thing you think athletes need to understand about BET?

Pain or effort perception doesn’t develop in the muscle, but in the brain and so it is worthy to train this part of the body to find a competitive edge.

It is also important that athletes understand that BET is a hard workout and is based on prolonged periods of highly demanding cognitive tasks so it is not a fun game to do for a minute or two. It has to be structured and it can be overloading as much as a high-intensity physical training session. 

There are some athletes like David Goggins that put a big focus on the mind. Essentially for them, the goal of a workout is to suffer physically to train their mind. What do you think the benefit of BET is over and above just pushing yourself and suffering?

This is a great example of how for decades athletes (as well as military personnel) have used physical training to build a mental resilience toward pain or discomfort. Indeed, this is a great and also scientifically proven method (as mental and physical exertion are linked). BET can become a great supplement training to build more resilience without taxing the body (which could lead to injury or overtraining).  

What can we learn from athletes like this and apply in our BET sessions?

Athletes have a huge drive toward improvement and to go beyond their own limit. They have learnt to deal with a lot of pain, high effort and insane levels of discomfort. As such, they explore every possible solution to gain the winning edge they need to perform better. In the last two decades (thanks to scientific and technological advancement), the brain has become the ultimate area to explore in the quest to be faster, stronger and better. In this context, BET is the result of years of research that brought to life a type of valid and reliable training method that can indeed help athletes get the edge they are looking for.  

Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.

Bruce Lee

Mentioned Studies

A Randomized Controlled Trial of Brain Endurance Training (BET) to Reduce Fatigue During Endurance Exercise” 
Walter Staiano; Michele Merlini; Samuele M Marcora
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2015

“Mental Fatigue impairs physical performance in humans”
Samuele Marcora; Walter Staiano; Victoria Manning
Journal of Applied Physiology, 2009

“Impact of 4-week Brain Endurance Training (BET) on Cognitive and Physical Performance in Professional Football Players”
Walter Staiano; Michele Merlini; Chiara Gattoni; Samuele Marcora
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2019

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