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Training For The Mind: Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

To the untrained eye, the reason that we exercise is to simply improve our fitness. We lift to improve our strength and build muscle and we go on long runs, swims or rides to develop our endurance. That is what, at the most basic level, training is all about – improving our athletic performance.

Sometimes I hear people disregard rest days and the importance of recovery. I usually laugh at this as the inner scientist in me cringes. At first glance, this attitude would seem to come from the false belief that improvements in our physiology occur in the gym and whilst exercising, rather than in our sleep and time spent recovering, and for the vast majority of people, it is likely to be true that they are incorrectly taking this ‘no rest’ approach with the aim of improving their fitness.

However, to some, there is more to training than simply improving fitness. To some, training is less about the body, than it is about the mind. Take David Goggins for example, he never has a rest day, and to many, this would seem crazy and futile. But, the most important thing to him when training is the development of his mental toughness. For some people, training is not about improving their body or fitness, these are just welcome bi-products. Instead, training is about the mind. Creating a high level of suffering to develop their mental toughness and themselves as a person.

‘Who on this f**king earth would be going right now? You are! I believed it enough to where my body said: “he’s not gonna stop”.’

David Goggins

I’m certainly not suggesting that you do go at 100% all the time, and you should give yourself time to rest and recover. But we can learn a lot from the mentality shown by Goggins: we should not be using science as an excuse for slacking. In that sense, you would only be cheating yourself. We should however use the science when it is correctly applied and take appropriate recovery for the our exercise. Indeed, by its very definition, you cannot recover without putting the work in first.

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

Marcus Aurelius

If we cave in to feelings of needing to stop we our losing an internal battle with our mind, and the mind is immensely powerful. Under conditions of mental fatigue our endurance performance is shown to decrease significantly (1,2). Yet, the science shows that using Brain Endurance Training over a 12-week programme was shown to yield 3x the improvement in athletic performance in a time-to-exhaustion trial (3). By putting our mind under uncomfortable conditions and testing our mental capacities we can break the boundaries of what was previously possible.

“That’s one of my big things too is, you know, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable”

Laura Kline – Rewire Athlete

To read more about the Rewire Brain Training System, click here.

References

1.        Marcora SM, Staiano W, Manning V. Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2009; 

2.        Lopes TR, Oliveira DM, Simurro PB, Akiba HT, Nakamura FY, Okano AH, et al. No Sex Difference in Mental Fatigue Effect on High-Level Runners’ Aerobic Performance. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2020;Volume Pub. 

3.        Marcora SM, Staiano W, Merlini M. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Brain Endurance Training (BET) to Reduce Fatigue During Endurance Exercise. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2015; 

Recommended Reading

Can’t Hurt Me
by David Goggins

Meditations
by Marcus Aurelius

The Obstacle is the Way
by Ryan Holiday

The Joe Rogan Experience #1212 – David Goggins

The Tim Ferriss Podcast: Ryan Holiday (#4)

Why Cognitive Training is the Next Big Development in Sports

In recent decades, the application and development of science in sports has boomed. Elite teams and athletes have sports scientists working with them to push limits further than ever before.

Perhaps one of the most interesting recent examples of this is the concept of marginal gains, an idea championed by Sir Dave Brailsford, former Performance Director of British Cycling and GM of Team Ineos. Marginal gains is the concept that it is possible to increase performance by 1% in many specific areas and these tiny improvements add up to create significant overall improvement. This philosophy aided in the incredible development of Team GB’s cycling team, changing them from a laughing stock to a thriving team that won 16 Gold medals across Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

Sir Dave Brailsford (left), the pioneer of the Marginal Gains Philosophy

Brailsford made changes across a wide array of areas previously thought unimportant in order to create these marginal gains. This included the team bus layout, introduction of antibacterial hand gel to reduce infection and illness and adaptations to the warm-up. These marginal gains accumulated and the significant improvement was indicated by the medal haul.

However, one seemingly neglected area of sports science so far has been cognitive training, despite how important mental toughness is perceived to be in sports. We are forever bombarded by quotes expanding on the idea of ‘mind over matter’ but little is done to actually train the mind. We need to train the mind to be more resilient to the mental fatigue that we will inevitably face in competition to improve decision making, reduce our perception of effort and enhance positive thinking and motivation.

Some athletes have already started on a journey of cognitive training. Tom Brady has used brain training to sharpen his mind, relax his brain post-game and to improve his sleep. He also uses it to build resilience to protect against future concussions.

Cognitive tasks like a Go/NoGo task can help athletes like Brady, who are tested under extreme pressure,to make smart split-second decisions. This has been shown in a study with fencers that showed that they had better reaction times in discriminative tests but not in simple reaction tests (Di Russo et al., 2006). This demonstrates that they have the ability to make good decisions consistently under pressure. 

Response inhibition tasks like the Stroop task can help to train our mental endurance and tolerance to mental fatigue. Mental Fatigue has been shown to significantly reduce endurance performance through an increase in RPE (Marcora et al., 2009). By performing cognitive training we can increase our tolerance to mental fatigue, reducing its negative effect. In fact, using Brain Endurance Training over a 12-week programme was shown to yield 3x the improvement in athletic performance in a time-to-exhaustion trial (Staiano et al., 2015).

Cognitive training creates huge improvements in performance. Its lack of adoption so far is somewhat nice to know as it shows that there are still boundaries to break in sport and I’m sure with adoption we will see records being broken even further. It also allows the introduction of new metrics. An objective mental stress test, yielding a mental stress score, will be able to assist with athlete monitoring above and beyond current subjective measures. Perception gap, a new metric that is part of the Rewire system, is a measure of the difference between Self-Rated RPE and objective work output with data from heart rate monitors and power meters. By tracking this you can measure your mental performance over time. The goal is to reduce the perception gap when under mentally fatiguing situations so that your mind is not a limiter to achieving your true athletic potential.

If we thought marginal gains were squeezing the last bit out of human performance, we were wrong. 10 years of science has already shown that cognitive training has the potential to yield huge improvements in athletic performance. 

Buckle up and get ready for the next wave of athletes to break records and achieve new heights in athletic performance powered by new brain training solutions hitting the market over the coming years.

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Studies Covered in Article for Further Reading

“Neural correlates of fast stimulus discrimination and response selection in top-level fencers”
by Francesco Di Russo, Francesco Taddei, Teresa Apnile and Donatella Spinelli
Neuroscience Letters, 2006

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

A Randomized Controlled Trial of Brain Endurance Training (BET) to Reduce Fatigue During Endurance Exercise” 
by Walter Staiano, Michele Merlini and Samuele M Marcora
Conference: ACSM Annual Meeting, 2015