Redefine your limits
Show your brain what your body can really do
Think you consciously decided how fast you were going to run today? Think again. At the University of Cape Town, two groups of cyclists completed time trials in the hot and the cold. Those exercising in the heat clocked slower times – but they dropped pace well before their core temperatures rose significantly, suggesting pace is pre-emptively set by the brain.
How can you counter this? There’s no way to sugarcoat it: learn to deal with discomfort the hard way, says Noakes. Running race pace and faster in 1000m intervals is the best way to teach your brain what your body is actually capable of.
Free your mind (and the rest will follow)
Tough day? Reach for the remote before training
Ever thought you could get a performance boost from Robson Green’s Extreme Fishing? Nor did we, but disengaging your brain could give you an edge, say researchers at Bangor University. They asked athletes to complete a high-intensity session after spending 90 minutes watching a documentary or working on a demanding cognitive task. Although physiological responses barely differed between the groups, the more mentally fatigued athletes experienced higher levels of perceived exertion – and gave up an average of 15 per cent earlier. Now then, what’s on the shopping channel…
Harness the competition
Take on a friend, and you’ll tap into fuel reserves for a stronger, faster finish
University of Portsmouth researchers got cyclists to race as fast as they could for 2000m, as a figure representing them moved along a virtual course on a screen. Next, they were told a second figure would represent the efforts of a competitor. The cyclists stormed to victory over their ‘rivals’ with an increase of one and a half per cent in speed over the final stages. “Our results show that competition provides the motivation to tell the brain to eat into a greater part of the fuel reserve that athletes have left at the end of a race,” says Dr Jo Corbett, senior lecturer in applied exercise physiology.
Recovery protects your brain from neuro-messengers of fatigue
Hard sessions stimulate the release of cytokines, immune system cells that aid the repair of exercise-related muscle damage. One of these (IL-6) enters the brain and alters neurochemistry, causing exhaustion.
Researchers at the Appalachian State University, US, found high intensity training followed by insufficient rest causes levels of IL-6 to stay elevated, which can leave you extremely fatigued. Always get your full quota of shut-eye (eight to nine hours during heavy training periods) and find time for a healthy post-run meal – try our Brain Food suggestions.
Meditating teaches your grey matter to cope with pain on a higher level
A little bit of Om can relieve the ouch, according to US studies at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre. Just 80 minutes of meditation was found to reduce ‘pain intensity’ by 40 per cent and ‘pain unpleasantness’ by 57 per cent. And brain scans demonstrated reduced pain-related activation. The trick is to let your mind run wild and acknowledge all your thoughts, advises lead author Fadel Zeidan, but don’t dwell on any of them. If this happens, pay closer attention to your breathing, says Zeidan. “Follow [the air] as it enters at the nose, notice any tingling, scan your body for sensations.”
Discover more about the science behind training the brain and the foods that can help.