Imagine you’re an athlete of the future. It’s your rest day, but you schedule a specialised brain training session that gives you the edge over the competition, without compromising recovery. Or you’re injured, but can’t afford to sit around just waiting to heal – so you train your brain while your body rests, reducing the negative impact of the injury on your future performance. Well you may not have to stretch your imagination too far; we could already be living in the future. This post outlines a new brand of training conceived by Prof. Samuele Marcora (University of Kent), with incredible potential for boosting performance, without even leaving your lounge room. It’s called Brain Endurance Training (BET).

While BET can take various forms, its core concept is simple and comparable to physical training:

 

 

As seen in the above figure, physical training involves systematically repeating physically fatiguing tasks (training bouts) with the goal of building a resistance to fatigue and improving performance. BET is similar, only instead of training your body with physically fatiguing tasks, you train your brain with mentally fatiguing tasks. But why should training your brain improve your physical performance? The rationale behind this theory is based on the following principles:

  1. Endurance performance is limited by perception of effort, not physiological factors.
  1. Mental fatigue increases perception of effort and impairs endurance performance.

Therefore, it logically follows that increasing resistance to mental fatigue should reduce perception of effort and improve endurance performance. This is precisely what BET aims to do, but does it actually work? As BET is still in preliminary stages, data have been presented from only 1 study (1) – but the results are extraordinary.

In this study 28 physically active males completed either 12 weeks of physical training or 12 weeks of BET. Physical training involved cycling on an ergometer for 60 min at 65% of VO2max, 3 times per week. BET involved the same physical training with one important addition; a mentally fatiguing computer task at the same time as cycling. VO2max and time-to-exhaustion were assessed before and after the 12-week training phase.

No surprises with VO2max, which increased similarly in both groups, suggesting comparable physiological adaptations to training. However, the time-to-exhaustion results tell a more interesting story. Those that completed the physical training improved cycling time-to-exhaustion by 43%; from 19 min to 30 min on average. That’s quite a respectable result for 12 weeks of training in already active participants. Those that completed the BET improved cycling time-to-exhaustion by 113%; from 27 min to 51 min on average. The authors of this study conclude that the addition of BET is “highly effective in reducing perception of effort and improving performance”, but “highly effective” might be understating these incredible results.

It is worth noting that BET in this study was performed simultaneously with cycling; completing the mentally fatiguing tasks prior to, or separate from physical training sessions would likely produce different results.

As BET is still in developmental stages, additional research is required to determine and optimise appropriate training strategies for different competitive settings. Nevertheless, we can speculate as to the ways in which BET may benefit athletes from different levels and types of competition:

  1. It is likely that BET will have a less substantial effect on elite athletes; however at the elite level, very small improvements can result in a large competitive advantage. Furthermore, elite athletes utilise rigorous training programs, with little room for additional physical stress. BET could provide an additional and novel stress, without any negative physical consequences.
  1. BET may be particularly beneficial for team sport athletes as they are faced with both physical and mental fatigue throughout a match. Thus BET could lead to enhanced physical performance as well as improvements in factors like decision-making.
  1. BET may be useful for injured endurance athletes and others who are temporarily prevented from physical training. In this setting it is likely that BET would dampen the negative effects of detraining, rather than improve performance. This would result in a faster return to baseline performance levels post-injury.

Further research will undoubtedly reveal many additional applications for BET in sport and other settings. But for now we should be content with our sneak peek into what may just be the future of training. For updates on mental fatigue and BET in endurance and team sport athletes, you can follow myself and Prof. Samuele Marcora on twitter:  @Mitch_R_Smith & @SamueleMarcora.

References

  1. Marcora S, Staiano W, Merlini M. Brain training improves endurance performance. In. 19th annual congress of the European College of Sports Science. Amsterdam, The Netherlands2014, p 347.