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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

A 101 Guide to Binaural Beats

Binaural beats are a form of brainwave entrainment that have been shown to have positive effects on stress, anxiety (1,2), focus (3), motivation, confidence and meditation (4). Binaural beats work when two different frequencies are heard, one in each ear. This creates a third tone, the binaural beat, whose frequency is the difference between the two other tones, e.g. if the tone in one ear is 400Hz and the other is 410Hz, the binaural beat is 10Hz. This binaural beat is shown to have a positive impact on the user’s mindset. It is important to note that stereo headphones are required to achieve a binaural beat since when using a speaker or non-stereo headphones the frequencies are already mixed outside the brain and hence no binaural beat is created.

The various tones of binaural beats affect the user differently. The following tones are used in the Rewire Mindset Recovery System:

  • 0.5 – 3.5 Hz – Delta wave for deep sleep
    • In a 2018 study, participants who received this frequency during sleep entered deep sleep quicker and for longer (5). This allows participants to gain more of the benefits of deep sleep including physical recovery.
  • 4.0 – 6.5 Hz – Theta for meditation/sleep
    • A 2017 study showed that even listening to a 6Hz binaural beat for just 10 minutes induced the user’s brain into a state similar to that achieved during meditation (4).
  • 7.0 – 12.5 Hz – Alpha for relaxation/dreams
    • In a 1990 study, alpha wave binaural beats were shown to have a positive influence on the user’s relaxation (6).
  • 13.0 – 38.5 – Beta for Activity            
    • It has been shown that beta wave binaural beats can positively affect vigilance performance and mood (3), and a recent 2019 study showed that beta wave binaural beats have a positive impact on long term memory (7).

Binaural beats also have a positive effect in counteracting the negative effects of mental fatigue. A recent 2020 study by Walter Staiano, Rewire’s Scientific Advisor, showed that binaural beats reduce the negative effect of mental fatigue (8). This makes binaural beats an important part of mindset recovery and pre-competition preparation in sports to minimise the negative effects that mental fatigue is shown to have on endurance performance (9,10).

We have put together a demo of our mindset recovery system featuring theta wave binaural beats which you can watch and download below.

You can also hear what binaural beats sound like raw and play around with different tones here.

References

1.        Padmanabhan R, Hildreth AJ, Laws D. A prospective, randomised, controlled study examining binaural beat audio and pre-operative anxiety in patients undergoing general anaesthesia for day case surgery. Anaesthesia. 2005; 

2.        Garcia-Argibay M, Santed MA, Reales JM. Efficacy of binaural auditory beats in cognition, anxiety, and pain perception: a meta-analysis. Psychol Res. 2019; 

3.        Lane JD, Kasian SJ, Owens JE, Marsh GR. Binaural auditory beats affect vigilance performance and mood. Physiol Behav. 1998; 

4.        Jirakittayakorn N, Wongsawat Y. Brain responses to a 6-Hz binaural beat: Effects on general theta rhythm and frontal midline theta activity. Front Neurosci. 2017; 

5.        Jirakittayakorn N, Wongsawat Y. A Novel Insight of Effects of a 3-Hz Binaural Beat on Sleep Stages During Sleep. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018; 

6.        Foster DS. EEG and Subjective Correlates of Alpha-Frequency Binaural-Beat Stimulation Combined with Alpha Biofeedback. 1990; 

7.        Garcia-Argibay M, Santed MA, Reales JM. Binaural auditory beats affect long-term memory. Psychol Res. 2019; 

8.        Axelsen JL, Kirk U, Staiano W. On-the-Spot Binaural Beats and Mindfulness Reduces the Effect of Mental Fatigue. J Cogn Enhanc. 2020; 

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

10.      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. 

Simple Ways to Improve your Sleep for Athletic Performance

The quality of our sleep has huge implications for athletic performance. Sleep is essentially the time when physical and mental recovery occurs. With good cognitive function and physical readiness being required for us to perform at our peak, it is obvious to see how it is important that we have good quality sleep to perform at our best.

Start listening to our circadian rhythms

“We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems”

Professor Russell Foster

Our sleep patterns our guided by circadian rhythms, which essentially act as our body clock and determine the appropriate time for hormone release, which in the case of sleep is melatonin. With the invention of the light bulb and screens has come the ability to overcome this natural body clock. The presence of blue light reduces the secretion of melatonin, increasing alertness and keeping us awake. This delays the onset of sleep and reduces the amount of time that we spend asleep. By cutting out screens as you prepare to go to sleep you can ensure that your onset of sleep is faster and thus your time in bed is more efficient.

Think in cycles not hours

“Eight hours sleep is an average amount of sleep people get per night, and it somehow seems to have become a recommended amount – for everyone. The resultant pressure put on getting this is incredibly damaging and counterproductive to getting the right amount of sleep that we individually need”

Nick Littlehales

To maximise the quality of our sleep we should quantify sleep in terms of cycles, not hours. One sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes and hence if we can time our sleep to wake up at the end of a cycle we can wake up at the lightest point of our sleep and feel refreshed and ready to start the day.

We should also not be too concerned about the amount of sleep we get each day but instead over the whole week. In his book “Sleep”, Littlehales suggests that we should be getting 35 cycles per week, averaging 5 cycles a day, which works out as 7 hours 30 minutes. This approach is much more achievable than consistently hitting 8 hours which can be quite pressuring and stressful and a cycle approach is reflective of how we actually sleep. Littlehales says that this approach reduces the stress hormones released from struggling to sleep and allows us to get effective rest and recovery.

Apps like Sleep Cycle ensure that your alarm wakes you up at the lightest point of sleep possible meaning that you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start the day.

Be more consistent

Our body adapts to the time we fall asleep and thus by being more consistent, we can fall asleep quicker and ensure the time that we spent in bed is efficient. Not only is our sleep more efficient when we are consistent, but we also get more slow-wave and REM sleep – the times when physical and mental recovery occurs respectively. This allows us to maximise the benefits of training and perform at our best. 

Laura Kline, Rewire Athlete, tells us that by developing a consistent routine she has been able to ensure she gets adequate sleep. “By 8:00 I have my magnesium drink and try to limit my screen time. I aim to be in bed by 9:30 – I find that following a set schedule makes a difference as my body knows it’s time to shut down.” Laura says that by doing this she can typically fall asleep within minutes and on the inevitable days that she can’t follow her routine she notices a difference the next day. 

Optimising our sleep is not necessarily about getting more sleep, but about making the time that we spend in bed as efficient as possible. Only by working to improve the way that we sleep can we truly allow for sufficient recovery to develop our athletic performance.

Further Reading:

Blue light from light-emitting diodes elicits a dose dependent suppression of melatonin in humans
West et al.
Journal of Applied Physiology, 2011

Sleep: Change the way you sleep with this 90 minute read
Nick Littlehales

New Feature: Sleep Consistency – Why We Track it, How Do You Compare?
Whoop

‘Arrogance’ of ignoring need for sleep
James Gallagher