#6 – Matt Hanson, Professional Triathlete – Optimizing Cognitive and Physical Recovery

On this episode, the Rewire team discuss with Matt his journey from being a professor in exercise science to now being a professional triathlete competing at the highest level. We discuss the lessons that he’s learned along the way, both as an athlete and a coach, including how Matt is able to prioritize both cognitive and physical recovery whilst training. 

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Podcast #4 – Diving into Rewire’s Mindset Recovery System

On this episode, Ed Gibbins is joined by Sun Sachs (CEO and Co-founder) and Dr. Walter Staiano. The Rewire team discuss what our Mindset Recovery System involves, its uses, and the science behind the protocols it uses. 

Stay tuned at the end of the podcast for a demo of our Mindset Recovery System featuring guided box breathing and binaural beats specifically designed for relaxation.

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Podcast #3 – Rewire in Action: Alpine Climb with Sun Sachs

On this episode, Sun Sachs talks through his recent experience of climbing Mount Rainier and how he used the Rewire system to prepare for his climb, to perform under challenging conditions and to recover. Lindsay Shaffer, Rewires Strategic Advisor, and Ed Gibbins discuss with Sun the mental and physical challenges that he faced and how he overcame them. We also analyse Sun’s data from during the climb to understand the effects from a cognitive, emotional and physical perspective.

Ed: Firstly Sun, can you tell us a bit about your climb?

Sun: Yeah, so a year ago, a buddy and I had booked this trip to climb Mount Rainier and we thought, of course, with COVID that it was going to be cancelled. So we were resigned to: ‘try again next year’! And then the mountain opened up a few weeks before to allow for permits to climb. So we decided to go for it! 

Travelling during COVID had its own risks and challenges. But we got there safely and then we prepared for our summit. To give a little bit of context for Mount Rainier. It’s an interesting mountain, it’s certainly not as dangerous as the big peaks around the world, but it is a nice beta for what you would experience on a climb like Everest. It does have about three to five deaths per year compared to Everest which might be around 5 or 7 and I’m bringing the fatality stats up for context because it sort of is a factor to a degree in what I experienced and we did face some challenges that sort of had us confront our fears due to the conditions that day. It has some great features: big crevasses, glaciers, and it has multiple altitude base camps that you stay at as you acclimatize. So it’s a true mountaineering expedition and challenge about 50% of the people that attempt to summit make it. So those are the statistics and background of the climb.

Lindsay: An adventure and challenge like Mount Rainier requires a lot of physical and mental preparation without COVID being a factor and without the uncertainty of knowing if it’s going to be cancelled or not. How did you manage that uncertainty mentally and still stay prepared?

Sun: The first thing is, I just tried to remain detached, in other words just allowing it to happen. You know, we’re either going to have the opportunity or not, but I tried not to get too fixated on it whether it would happen or not. And then secondly, I just continued to train my body. I focused a lot on Brain Endurance Training, on making sure I was aerobically fit, doing Mindset Recovery through our app multiple times per day, doing visualization. I was really just making sure that, if we did have the opportunity, I was totally ready. But at the same time not obsessing over ‘is this going to happen or not?’ Because just like any kind of fixation mentally that all that does is sap your energy and they detract from what you’re trying to do. So I just tried to stay neutral to the best of my ability. 

Ed: We’ve also tracked your data from the climb and analyzed it. So I want to take a look at some of the metrics. If we start with your muscle soreness, you’ve gone up overnight on your first night from 5 to 98. Can you tell us how that came about and the strain that this had on not only your body, but also your mind?

Sun: Yeah, the first day you hike up to the first base camp, which is 10,000 feet. It’s about a 6 ½ hour hike mostly through snow. I had what would be considered a lighter backpack, but the problem with it was that it didn’t fit me properly: it didn’t strap onto my waist like it should do to support the load, and then the shoulder straps didn’t actually touch my shoulders. So basically the entire 35lb was disproportionately putting pressure on all different parts of my back. So at first, I was just dealing with the discomfort but about halfway through it really started to have a negative impact. There was a lot of pain, and we were going at a pretty fast pace. I was in the front right behind the main guide and you know, I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to basically fix the pack. So I just had to find another way to address the challenges and one of the things that we have in our app is integrated mantras which help you practice using a positive mindset when you encounter challenges, they come up in the workouts during the hardest parts. So immediately a few of them came to mind: ‘Strong and focused’ and another was ‘Calm and Strong’ and I just kept repeating those over and over again and also allowed myself to be a bit detached from the pain. So I got up to the first base camp and as soon as I took my pack off I had full body cramps for about an hour. So I literally just had to lay there on top of my pack and I noticed that I had a bunch of salt on my skin, I’d lost a lot of electrolytes but I hadn’t brought any salt tablets. So I just sort of thought through what I could do and I realized that I had a bag of almonds and at the bottom of the almonds there’s always that dust – I literally just ate all the dust and all the almonds and in a few hours, I was fine. I got up and I was able to move around and all of that but that’s what was going on the first day 

Ed: I think there’s a beautiful quote that encapsulates the niggles you encountered:

“It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe”

Muhammad Ali. 

I think we prepare ourselves for the big challenges, both mentally and physically. But those little niggles that we haven’t thought about in advance – we aren’t prepared for.

Sun: Completely and they just Snowball! They start off as a little tiny irritating thing and then they just get worse and worse. And if you feed those thoughts you go into a downhill spiral. 

Lindsay: Sun, you mentioned being able to detach both from the trip happening and then from the pain. I think that that pain management is one of the hardest things for athletes to deal with and one of the biggest barriers to being resilient and can often cause us to quit our workout early or pull back a little bit in our race, how have you developed that ability to detach or is it something that you’re naturally good at?

Sun: It’s in the name ‘Endurance Sports’, you’re basically enduring a low amount of pain all the time. So I would definitely from 35+ years doing this there’s some adaptation that I’ve developed but I would also attribute a lot of it to our Brain Endurance Training system. What the system has you do during a workout, is answer these cognitive questions essentially forcing you to make decisions at the hardest points in the workout. And as you start to make mistakes, it only escalates and things get worse. So immediately you have to have this mindset when you’re doing our workouts that if things start to kind of unravel, you have to be detached enough to recognize it and fix it. If you stop or slow down for instance when doing Brain Endurance Training on the bike these little alarms go off. If you start to get the questions wrong, you can start to snowball into more and more questions wrong. And you know, that’s very analogous to the experience that I have or other athletes have: when they’re in the most difficult points in competition very well that if things start to go wrong, they’re only going to get worse. So being able to practice and have an opportunity with our product to be able to practice those sort of experiences is really beneficial. And it’s great because normally to train your mind you’d have to do a climb like I did or you have to go on a five-hour bike ride or three-hour run and you can’t do that all the time, but with our system, you can practice it a lot.

Ed: Another challenge that you faced is sleep. Over the course of the climb, you got about 6 hours of sleep, which is well out of your normal range. 6 hours is actually well out of range for a single night for you and that’s where you’ve had over the course of the entire trip! Yet, when we look at the subjective data that you’ve given in terms of your ‘Level of Readiness’, you manage to keep that really high and in some cases above your normal range. How did you manage to do that? 

Sun: To be honest, I didn’t anticipate getting that little sleep. So like the first night, when I had all the cramps and all the issues, I still managed to get 4 ½ hours of sleep. However, when we went to the next base camp, we basically had to go to sleep at 5 pm and wake up at midnight, so needless to say I got very little sleep. This is one of those situations where things can’t be ideal. But in our app, we have this mindset recovery system, which has a lot of different protocols to activate your physiology for recovery and to get in a positive mindset. And so rather than sleeping, because I just couldn’t, I basically played these back-to-back mindset sessions using binaural beats and they’re blended into really relaxing music. So you just listen to music, but meanwhile, it’s sending this frequency which in this case was a 2 Hz which effectively mimics what you would experience in deep sleep. So when your brain hears those low-level frequencies it tries to match those tones. So I literally just did these back-to-back sessions instead of sleep and my physiology responded as if I was getting deep sleep and you can even see that in my HRV scores and in the Readiness scores. But, I can tell you that definitely saved me because when I woke up at midnight on the third day with just over six hours sleep, I actually felt ready, my HRV was still in a reasonable range and I felt pretty sharp. 

Lindsay: I think we can get into vicious cycles when we can’t sleep and think: “but I have a really big day tomorrow” and then you go down that rabbit hole of thinking how it’s going to impact you and that actually starts to create your future. Even though you weren’t able to sleep, how much confidence did binaural beats give you or help you to overcome that anxiety that lack of sleep can generate?

Sun: It was pretty profound actually. It was almost like being in a lucid dream, the music that we picked is just really calming and relaxing and kind of ethereal and I was just laying there with my eyes closed and in my mind was just experiencing different moments in my life and kind of almost dreaming. I think at that low-level frequency where you’re really trying to mimic this extreme kind of physiological relaxation state, I was calm. It also let me detach a little bit because what was going on was we had very warm conditions up on the mountain and normally you’d want the area to be in basically sub-freezing conditions and that’s because we were camped out on a glacier. So 10 feet in front of me was a giant crevasse going down hundreds of feet, behind me was a big Glacier with other crevasses. With the melting snow, I was hearing chunks of ice falling off and we’re at the bottom of a hill, right near the Ingraham Glacier where 11 people were killed in a landslide. So as I was laying in the tent with every crack and falling snow I kept thinking: “Okay, if I hear a snow slide, can I open up the zipper dive out of the tent and get out of the way before the snow slide pushes me down into the crevasse.” So being able to detach a bit and just listen to the binaural beats and let my mind wander really helped me.

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Lindsay: I find it so interesting, the idea of being at the same frequency as your brain waves during deep sleep. Not only the physiological impact that it has on you but also the psychological impact where it can help you to have some comfort in thinking that it’s okay that I’m not getting as much sleep right now because I know that this is a tool that can help me to be restored and recovered to some extent and be ready for what the day brings tomorrow. 

Sun: That’s right. I mean, you know, we’re all performance-minded and we know the importance of sleep, but sometimes you just can’t do anything about it. In that case, are you just screwed or can you actually do other things to help yourself? This is one of those things that you can do so it’s nice to have that tool. 

Ed: There’s a lot of things about sleep that you can control, but sometimes when you can’t sleep, you just simply can’t sleep and that takes it out of your control. So having that one tool that brings it back into your control is very reassuring. 

Sun: To continue the story… Due to the warm conditions,  in the upper part of the route, that’s part of the summit attempt, the crevasse had collapsed and there was no route to the top. So the guides went up there and worked the whole day while we were trying to sleep to carve out a new route. Usually, a route would take days or weeks and then also you want to traverse it and get it packed down and they were making the route in a single day under really crappy conditions, so that alone sort of increased the risk. When we went to sleep, there was still some uncertainty over whether we would be able to climb and we were also told that this new route would add a few more hours, which meant we would spend 14 hours climbing and a lot of the fatalities and accidents happen on the descent because you have a greater level of fatigue. Before I went I also looked into the epidemiology of climbing accidents and the number one cause of death related to a human error is slipping on snow or ice. And we had extreme conditions, I had little sleep and was heavily fatigued and now we’re trying to make your way down a mountain. So all these things were kind of going through my mind but we were woken up at just before midnight and told we were going to attempt the summit. 

At about midnight we’re going over this challenging cliff face. I’m watching every step, observing myself and making sure that I’m not suffering from any kind of cognitive fatigue. I’m watching the guy in front of me, and trying to give tips to the guy behind me because he’s tied to me and I don’t want him to fall as if he falls and I fall. So all this stuff is going through my mind and we’re going at a much faster pace because we’re trying to get up and make up for lost time with two extra hours to try to get to the summit. So I’m breathing very hard and between high threshold aerobic and anaerobic the whole time and taking huge three-foot-high steps onto shale that’s exposed on the edge of these cliffs. So it was pretty tense, to put it lightly, as we were working our way up. 

Lindsay: So in this situation where you’re on the most challenging part of the climb, people have dropped out, you’re at maximum muscle soreness and minimum sleep and you also know that a slip of the foot is the highest cause of death. How are you mentally coping with all of this? 

Sun: Yeah, it’s true and it was a really good beta test for Rewire! Knowing the science and knowing sort of the factors for when your reaction time is slow or when the negative thoughts start to creep in. For example, there was a study where they looked at all the attributes around mental toughness. And the three biggest attributes were self-confidence, positive cognition, self-belief. We know that positive cognition is basically the things you tell yourself when it’s challenging. So for me, I didn’t have any room for doubt. I didn’t have any room for you know for second-guessing or allowing myself to be distracted in any way. I had to be 100% on point with every single step and I would definitely attribute that to the high level of focus that we need to have when we’re doing Brain Endurance Training. Some athletes refer to it as being locked into the workout because you’re not allowed to slow down physically, you’re not allowed to slip up mentally you just sort of have to maintain a super high level of focus. That definitely was critical. 

Ed: Yes, and we can see that with your cognitive data. Your reaction times are really positive and you never really slip out of normal range. Actually, for most of the climb, you’re on the better side of your average! It’s incredible that your training and also the Mindset Recovery that you were doing on the climb helped in that way. 

Lindsay: It’s really interesting because, within the culture of sport, when we think about flow state, which is really just a relaxed, focussed state where you lose track of space and time and being fully immersed in what you’re doing. I think a lot of athletes right now reach flow inconsistently because most people don’t train the mind and so we don’t have as much control of when we’re able to get in that flow state. I think there can be a belief that you’re either mentally tough or you aren’t. There hasn’t been the idea that you can work on your mental toughness, just like you can work on your physical toughness through training. What I see as so powerful here, is the commitment that you’ve made to training your mind! When you say you have no room for that distraction, it’s not because you are naturally born with it, it’s because you’ve really worked at it and we all have that ability if we put the training in. 

Sun: To continue on the story… Our guide had climbed Everest and is super experienced with a 100% track record for a successful summit since 2018. So you know that safety is always the number one concern but you know that if he could do it he would make it happen. And basically he took a step through the snow and he went up to his knees in the snow which means the snow is severely soft. Normally you’d want the snow, to be really packed down because you’re wearing crampons and you have your ice pick and you’re basically relying on the snow to hold its ground. And so seeing that he was like: “Sorry guys, we’re going to turn around.” Which in some ways was a relief because I was pretty concerned about the new route being created along the edge of a crevasse with really soft snow. So obviously like he made the right call but then as further evidence that he made the right call, as we were making our way back down the rock face we started seeing lightning and it was starting to strike closer and closer. Our guide was like: “One of our guides was struck by lightning a little while ago. He’s okay now, but he was really stunned.” And then maybe five minutes later just ahead of where we were heading a strike hit and he was like: “Yeah without a doubt we would have turned around for this reason alone not to mention obviously the soft conditions in the crevasse.” So, we were trying to make our way down quickly and with a lot of precision and we got off the rock face, and I could see the base camp. It’s still pitch black and you can’t see much in front of you, you’re still tied together and suddenly we hear this big crash like the crumbling and collapsing of snow up above and our guide who was super experienced was like “Shit!” We both looked up because it was just me, him and another guy and we were literally ready to do whatever we had to do to avoid the avalanche. There wasn’t an avalanche but there was a snowfall and it was like two minutes ahead of where we were walking. So that was quite a scare. And of course, as we passed it, he goes: “Oh, yeah. This is the site where the most fatalities that ever happened in a single day 11 people died in this Avalanche”. So we made it back to the tent. and needless to say, I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, but it was just being able to sort of the biggest impact for me was having that kind of challenge, facing my sort of mortality, and seeing how I responded. It really put things in a good perspective in terms of what’s important in my life and that was really meaningful. 

Lindsay: Was there any disappointment about not being able to reach the summit? And if yes, how did you deal with the disappointment that I think would be natural for a lot of people?

Sun: Yeah, there wasn’t a disappointment and that’s because it was out of my control. I didn’t make the call to not summit. I also wouldn’t have said like this is a do-or-die goal. I wanted to be in this rare environment, which is incredibly beautiful, especially being landlocked with COVID and not being able to really go and explore nature. Then actually to have these challenges, which are probably more interesting than an uneventful summit. I feel like I got more than my money’s worth and I’ve got a lot of respect for that mountain. I do intend to go back at some point and hopefully summit, but I just have a lot of respect for what the much more experienced mountaineers do and the risks they take. So I feel very privileged to have gone and experienced that, so no regrets whatsoever!

Lindsay: At what points do you think you were both mentally lowest and highest and what role did brain training play in both of those? 

Sun: I would say probably the lowest was the first day with the backpack and all the pain that I was dealing with. Because I was thinking that I still have two more days left and I’m already full body cramping. But I basically like being calm under pressure, dealing with it and being solution-oriented. The other part would just be the psychological pressure of knowing that the conditions are bad. We had heard about the collapsed route that first night when we got to base camp. So we were sitting with this situation for a few days and that weighed on me a bit. The highest was right after I experienced all that fight-or-flight, life-or-death type of stuff. When I got down the mountain it was like 3 am and I just stayed up all night and watched the sunrise and it was just amazing. 

Lindsay: So much of that sounds like it comes from just the ability to stay in the present and not letting all these ‘what ifs’ get in the way and just being able to enjoy it.

Sun: That’s the thing about mountaineering that’s different from some of the endurance sports. When you’re in a multi-day experience and you just simply can’t afford to not deal with the situation, it’s really a different challenge. If I’m in a race and I’m starting to struggle and it’s really difficult, you do have a choice to go down that rabbit hole of getting to the negative spiral but if you’re on the mountain like there are much more severe consequences and so you really do have to be at the top of your game, you can’t afford not to be, because of the consequences.

Ed: I think it’s a challenge in a different sense. You might not have climbed the summit but challenges you faced were far superior to that summit and it definitely sounds like the mountain was calling loud that day! 

Sun: Indeed – that’s exactly right and I’m glad we listened. While I was watching that Sunset I was listening to my binaural beats and we bring in these really cool quotes from different inspiring people throughout history. The stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius is one of my favourites, and this came up while I was watching the sunset and it was so fitting and I just recognized how profound it is. 

“Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.”

Marcus Aurelius

If we try to unpack it, there’s an element of acceptance to the situation and also an element embracing the challenge that is totally endurable and within your capacity to overcome. It’s just a beautiful quote and was really fitting.

Lindsay: I love that. Yeah, I think we so often underestimate the power of the mind and it truly is the foundation of all that we do and set out to do.

Lindsay: We’ve talked about your preparation and we talked about the climb. But what did we see in the data and how did you feel during the recovery phase?

Sun: Yeah, that’s a really good question because there were some strange phenomenons happening. When I got to the bottom of the mountain I had been without sleep for over 24 hours and I felt surprisingly okay. I’m not the type that will do all-nighters these days, I’m a bit too old for that behaviour and when I’ve had to I feel wrecked but I actually felt I felt okay. We had a good meal, I took a shower, and then went to bed pretty early and the next day I basically felt normal. I did feel some soreness for sure, but it was surprising how good I felt this.

Ed: From the data standpoint, we’ve almost got a mountain in the form of the resting heart rate and crevasse for his heart rate variability, which is very fitting. So yeah for his resting heart rate spikes on the last day but it’s constantly creeping up and it’s miles out of range. If we standardize the data, it’s the lowest that he has ever been but then his recovery in terms of resting heart rate was very quick. So already by day one after it’s dropped significantly and it’s just outside the normal range and then by two days after its bang on average, which is attested to Sun’s training that he’s done for this and just shows how quickly he can recover from this kind of physical endeavour.

For heart rate variability, which many treat as a measure of recovery and readiness, he actually tapered very well before the start of his climb, where it reaches a peak. So that’s just attributed to his preparation for the climb. And that creeps down during the climb when he is faced with difficult physical challenges, but again he has a very quick recovery and is back on track almost straight away. 

Sun: Yeah, I would also say even when we’re just sort of fixated on the physiology. We really can’t divorce the mind from the physical body. So if you’re giving your body inputs through your mind that you are in physical duress, you’re going to have a negative impact on your physiology just from that alone. And so when you have extreme physical demands, you don’t need anything else contributing to that and I think that certainly had an impact on the way I was able to recover. And I was able to really activate my recovery through the different systems that we have, so that really helped.

Lindsay: Yeah, that ability that you’ve built up to feel okay, even when your HRV has dipped and your resting heart rate has spiked, plays a big role in you getting back to baseline much faster and recovering much faster.

Sun: That’s right. I even brought a pulse oximeter up there and on the second day, I was around 77 and 79 oxygen saturation, which is quite low like you’d ideally be in the 80s for climbing. So being down in the 70s is not a good sign, but I actually felt quite calm and I didn’t feel stressed out by the altitude or the acclimatization or the way my body was feeling which was super helpful.

Ed: Yeah, I think that the major differences between sort of your objective data and your subjective thoughts really highlights the mind’s impact on performance. Despite a poor physical state, you’re really able to keep your performance high and that’s just attributed to all the sort of training and preparation you’ve done and also what you’ve built up over the last 35 years.

Sun: Yeah, for sure. It was nice to feel really prepared on all levels. Not only was I physically prepared but I was mentally prepared and that was surprising to me because I hadn’t experienced it to that degree before. 

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Podcast #2 – Diving into Rewire with CEO and Co-Founder, Sun Sachs

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What if we could practice for those most difficult moments that we’ll face in competition. For those moments when your mind begins to unravel and self-doubt starts to creep in. How could this type of practice change our lives, not only for sports but for anything that requires mental toughness?

Sun Sachs

On this episode, Ed Gibbins sits down with Sun Sachs, CEO and Co-Founder of Rewire Fitness. Sun started Rewire over a year and a half ago and we discuss his inspiration behind the product, what the system involves and its applications in sport and in life. We also discuss current affairs at Rewire including our beta program as well as some plans for the future.

Ed: Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your background? 

Sun: Yeah, of course, so I grew up in the mecca of endurance sports in the United States: Boulder, Colorado. I spent my early years in road racing as a junior and pre-junior and then as the sport of mountain biking came into being in the 80s I started to get on the mountain bike circuit. I did NORBA, downhill, slalom, cross-country, BMX and bike trials. I competed at a national level in cyclocross and I was also a bike messenger for seven years. So the way of the bike was my life, my whole lifestyle, and as I started to develop my career, I kind of shifted into different types of endurance sports like adventure races, triathlons, long-distance swimming, and more recently I’ve transitioned into doing some alpine climbing, which I’ve been really excited about – kind of growing in that experience recently. So just a lifetime and endurance sports. And then meanwhile, I also have been in software development for 25 years, so building all kinds of products many different kinds of apps since the advent of the smartphone and many web applications, working with some great team members. So it’s a combination of being a lifelong endurance athlete and software development – I’m also kind of a performance nerd!

Ed: So you’ve lived your life on two wheels and been all across the endurance world. Can you tell us how you started Rewire and why?

Sun: Yeah, so I’ve been aware of this science for quite a long time. Basically the science around Brain Endurance Training (BET). I had really just been so excited about it from when I first heard it and had been waiting for a commercial product to come to market and it really never did. One day I was on the trainer and I had this epiphany, I just thought: “Oh, this is how it could be done!” I kind of saw it as a user interface problem – like how do you do brain endurance training while you’re also doing your workout? It’s a little bit tricky. So I got together with my co-founder Cody and we developed a prototype and within a few weeks we had something working and we’ve been at this for about a year and a half really just honing in on the software and the hardware and furthering the product with beta testing. So that’s kind of how it started. 

Ed: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really interesting how no one has sort of done anything with the mental toughness world. Every athlete knows the importance of mental toughness – when we’re talking to our athletes they say 50% to 90% of their performance (some even more) is on the mind. But, how many people actually spend time training their mind and what is there for it? So that’s what we’re going for. Can you speak a little bit more to why mental toughness is so fundamental to sports?

Sun: Yeah, of course. I mean it’s one of those things that’s almost cliche! We all know how important mental toughness is, and the traditional way to build mental toughness or resilience is to beat your body up! You can go on a five-hour ride, three-hour run – it works, but you can’t do that every day! And so, our solution is that we think of it rather than a hammer of beating your body up, it’s more like a scalpel. It’s very targeted, it targets the part of your brain that’s responsible for impulse control, for effectively managing your willpower, and your perception of effort. So what we’re essentially doing is adding more mental load to the workout, so that you adapt over time and become more resilient when you’re under fatigue. Basically, when you’re in those moments of competition or even just having a tough day, that’s when you want to be able to have that breakthrough of the wall and be able to up your game, and not have your brain be the limiter. So that’s a big part of why we develop the product. And then when you think about it, on the hardware side for sports products, at some point you can’t get a faster bike, right? You can only get so aero! At some point you just can’t put any more hours into training, what then? We’re down to the point where, with sports science which is evolved tremendously over the years, we’re down to marginal gains for athletes that take sport very seriously. What’s the new frontier? The obvious area, which has been sitting in front of us for decades, is mental performance. And so our goal is really to help athletes unleash their ultimate performance, to create opportunities for them to build their self-confidence, to build their mental resilience, and to give them practical ways to do that, with the software and the hardware combination

Ed: Definitely, when I spoke to Walter last time we spoke a little bit about David Goggins and the kind of athletes that just train their mind by pushing that body, and that’s great to a point – but bringing it into much more controlled environment is definitely needed. 
As you mentioned, you’ve been following the science for over 10 years now are there any studies have jumped out to you and really forged Rewire?

Sun: Yeah, there’s definitely quite a few. I’ll mention one that our chief scientist did where he basically took 35 amateur cyclists and he had them trained for three months. The control group trained on a trainer three times a week and the test group basically did the same indoor training but also layered on brain training. And as you’d expect in three months of consistent training the all the athletes improved, you know on the physical side. The control group improved by 40% but the brain endurance group improved by a 120% basically a 3X Improvement in performance! And what that actually translated to was five minutes longer on a time to exhaustion test, which is basically an effort where you go until you literally can’t go any longer! Five minutes is significant, 3X is insignificant. You don’t get that from an aero helmet!

Ed:  No, you don’t! Yeah, definitely and with the Rewire team being all athletes we all understand the importance of mental toughness in sports. I know when playing rugby some of my best performances of come when I really had to use my mind in the best way. And equally the other way around when failures occurred it’s because I’ve made bad decisions at that moment and having that ability to keep focused and keep mental toughness is crucial and I think when we look at the highest level of sports and the highest athletes up there, they’ve all got a certain level of mental toughness. 

Sun: Yeah, they’ve done some comparisons in one study between amateur and elite athletes basically looking at their mental resilience. And the elite or pro athletes when under a lot of mental load, even specifically during this cognitive type of training, they had a much more realistic or accurate perception of their effort and were able to maintain their physical and mental goals. Whereas the amateur athletes just didn’t have that same level of resilience built up. What’s exciting about that is that just shows that there is something cognitively that influences performance significantly and from what the science has shown it’s something that could be trained. That’s what we aim to do: create tools for athletes. The other aspect of mental toughness, there’s another study where they basically looked at all the attributes of mental toughness. On the psychological side, there are factors that are obvious and ones that are not so obvious. So self-confidence ended up being the number one attribute for mental toughness – that’s kind of obvious. But positive cognition was the second one, and that’s basically the things you tell yourself when the going gets tough. So if you start to do a negative spiral, I would say probably all of us know how that can go. But if you can shift into more of a positive mindset and keep the motivation up, that’s really where you’re going to see great results. So with our product, we also think about it in terms of mindset and in terms of mental and physical recovery.  So not only do we have a brain endurance component. We also have a tool that will help athletes sort of reset their mind or get into a positive mindset before competition. We all have our pre-race rituals and the things that we like to do to get into a good mindset and this provides tools that will help you go through those steps that help you have a calm, ready state before competition. 

Ed: Definitely! Science, over the past 10 years, is really starting to show the importance of the brain in performance. When we look at the older studies – it’s heavily focused on physiological aspects and now it’s starting to show it’s how the brain perceives that. And how we respond to that, and how we train our minds to improve performance is really starting to get crucial. And you mentioned pre-game rituals and rituals in the game. It’s really interesting because every athlete knows the importance and uses them. For myself, I have three clicks and a tap on my leg and that would be my reset button if I encountered any bumps in the road. So we all know how our mind works and we’re just needing to start to train it now. As you said we need to ‘unleash our performance’. So you mentioned the mindset recovery component of the Rewire system, can you speak a little bit more about what that involves?

Sun: Yeah, definitely! So we combine different scientifically proven protocols that will activate your physiology for recovery and get yourself into a positive mindset. They can be used either actively or passively. So for example, you can go through an exercise where we use box breathing, used by the Navy Seals, and that actually brings your body into a parasympathetic response and you can literally see your heart rate variability (HRV) improve over that session. And then we have protocols like binaural beats so you can literally just listen in your ear buds. And it’s a two-tone frequency, which follows the phenomenon known as brain entrainment, which basically your brain hears these lower-level frequencies and it tries to mirror them. So if we want somebody to get into a relaxed state we can play a theta waves binaural beat, and it is blended into some relaxing music. So it just feels like you’re listening to calm, meditative music, while at the same time, it’s entraining your brain to be in a more relaxed state. You can use it in a variety of ways: at the end of a recovery session to help you get in the right mindset, pre-training to have a positive perspective and build your confidence, you can use it before competition with a series of different steps that you can choose from to get into you in a calm, ready state. So there’s really a lot of different ways it can be used. And the other aspect of it is we track your physiology so we have some objective and subjective measures. We measure your own perception of relaxation and then also your heart, HRV and other data points. So you really can understand what’s effective and what’s working for you. Then in the future, you can basically choose the protocols that work best for you.

Ed: Can you explain in more detail about what the product is and how it’s working? 

Sun: Yeah, so it’s a hardware and software product where you basically have wireless buttons that you hold in your hands or attached to a training device like a bike, rowing machine or any number of different training equipment and then you use your smartphone to do cognitive tasks while you’re training. So you might get on a bike trainer and do a normal workout and while you’re doing that you’re layering on brain training by looking at your phone and answering these cognitive tasks questions. Then on the metrics side, we also track your physical performance, which is your objective metrics and then a number of cognitive metrics and lastly we compare all of that against your subjective rating of effort. That allows us to track your mental resilience over time, so you can really see a measurement of how you’re doing and how you’re improving. 

Ed: That last bit that you just mentioned about having that metric that tracks your mental toughness. I heard on a Joe Rogan podcast with Ross Edgley, the first man to swim around Great Britain, they were talking about “when are we going to get that metric that tracks our mental toughness”. That’s now! You’ve been training with the product since you first created it. How can you say it applies to sport and also life in general?

Sun: If you can do something that will prepare you for those moments in life when things feel like they’re unravelling and when they feel almost impossible to get through. If you can actually train for those moments, how would that impact sport, but also your life in general. Walter mentioned in his studies in the last podcast episode, the mental resilience really kicks in when you’re at a heightened level of fatigue. So what’s what it really is doing is preparing you for those toughest moments in life. Just imagine if you could do something that would prepare you for how to respond well when things get tough and to keep a calm mind and a positive outlook, the benefits would be profound. I’ve noticed definitely in sport it’s made the training feel easier. It’s made me a lot more confident going into a workout, hopefully soon a competition! And then in life too, I definitely have a busy lifestyle with this startup and my other responsibilities. And I’ve found a growing level of resilience having done this consistently now for the past year and a half and it’s really helped me just overall with my quality of life. 

Ed: The perception of effort part that you mentioned that’s critical! I spoke a lot with Walter about that last time, that sort of the piece of the puzzle that is going to increase your performance as you reduce your perceived exertion at the same intensity. So it’s a critical part of it. We’ve been running our second beta program for the past two months. Please can you speak a bit about that?

Sun: Yeah, we have a great group of men and women, elite and amateur athletes mostly in endurance sports. To top line some of their resumes and accomplishments: a former world duathlon champion and ultra runner, the current world record holder for Lands End to John O’ Groats, winners of prominent triathlons and we just recently started collaborating with an elite junior bike racing team in Europe and then quite a few coaches. We’re also collaborating with some organizations in your world, with elite and pro rugby teams. So we started to cross over into a lot of different sports and it’s really been interesting to see how many different types of athletes are interested in this! We’ve had applications to our beta program from strength athletes to tennis to sailing to boxing. You name the sport, athletes are interested in this! And now is really the time because you know, as we mentioned, this is the next frontier for performance and people are looking for that. They’re looking for new ways to get better and this area of performance is virtually untapped. So we’ve been excited and it’s been really helpful to have our beta athletes help us with improving the product and really making it seamless as possible for training and competition. 

Ed: So like we mentioned the majority of our current beta test is with a range of abilities of cyclists and triathletes. We will also be starting one with runners soon, can you speak about how the system is going to integrate with other sports? 

Sun: Yeah, definitely. So, we started with endurance athletes. Definitely partially based on my background and the sports that I know. But, we definitely see this to be a product that is applicable to all sports. And we’re building some foundational pieces to it. Right now, we have a lot of cognitive training that’s based on visual tasks, so in other words, you’re looking at the screen of your smartphone. But, we’re also adding audio-based tasks so athletes will be able to go out for a run with our brain training wireless buttons that they can hold in their hands and they can basically answer cognitive questions while they’re running or doing a variety of other sports: could be in the gym, out on the track, could be playing soccer, could be any number of sports. So we definitely aim to provide some tools that’ll make it easy and seamless for any athlete to use these tools. 

Ed: Definitely, I mean it is an exciting avenue that we’re in. A brand new field, and brand new kind of training and something for the future with the brain being the next frontier in marginal gains. Thanks for talking to me today Sun! I think we’ve got a really exciting future. It’s a really exciting new world that we’re exploring in terms of unlocking that next performance gain by training the mind, so I’m really excited and happy to be a part of it. And yeah, let’s keep it up! 

Sun: All right. Thank you so much, till next time!

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Marcus Aurelius

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

On this episode, Ed Gibbins sits down with Dr. Walter Staiano 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

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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