Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Mental Training Reboot Series: Why Do So Many High Performance Athletes Meditate?

A few years back I wrote a series on mental training & the brain science behind endurance sports for a now-departed multisport news website. Time for a reboot! Edited & updated for 2018. Enjoy.
“We all meditate. When I first went to an actual meditation class… the same feeling that you have when you want to stop in a race, when you think you’re going to quit at the end of an interval or whatever, that – to me – that feeling, I recognized when I was sitting trying to stay still and continuously come back to breathing.” – Simon Whitfield
The tasks put before you while training can be daunting. Never mind the crap that probably goes on in your head in a race. I don’t care whether you’re amateur, elite, mid-pack; you’re going to the well at some point – your brain hits the panic button and you slow down (good old central governor), or you’ve just built up too much cognitive fatigue, and quitting time seems really nice right about now. It’s a familiar feeling if you’ve been in endurance sports for any amount of time, and that “wanting to stop” may often be more mental than physical.
There are a lot of reasons to meditate. It’s good for sleep, stress, cardiovascular health, your immune system, decreasing pain perception, enhancing attention and focus – do a quick lit search and you’ll pull up a growing body of peer-reviewed studies (just please don’t try to meditate your cancer away. Modern medicine also exists for a reason.) So…why is it so hard for most of us to actually do? Do we really not have 5-10 minutes to sit and breathe per day?
Reason #1: It’s hard. Or maybe you tried it, and it was not fun. No #$%@ it’s not fun – you’re voluntarily skipping to the point in your workout where your brain wants to tap out. While sitting still. It’s a mental struggle that most of us are uncomfortable with.
Then why do so many high-performing athletes meditate – for another means of self-torture while chasing a dream? Marginal health gains? Because the self-flagellation of an FTP test isn’t enough? Sure, maybe, but probably more what Simon Whitfield was getting at – better control over one’s brain, particularly the point at which it says “stop”.
From a science standpoint, what we’ve mostly known up until now is that meditation seems to help with athletic performance, but not really why. Our new theory? It improves your ability to detect “body prediction errors” – the difference between what you expect to feel and how you actually feel. And, in the context of exercise, your brain uses these body prediction errors (expected exertion – actual exertion) to adjust your physical output– so it makes sense that minimizing body prediction errors leads to more optimal performance.

Enter Interoception –

It’s a fancy word for being attuned to the physical state of your body – and when you’re effectively processing body-relevant signals, you can learn to use them to choose a plan of action. This is critical for athletes for an obvious reason:
Detect disturbance in physical state ⇒ take action to fix it
You know what is really good for enhancing interoception?


Particularly mindfulness, which involves the practice of open, receptive awareness and attention to internal and external sensations as they arise – often done by focusing on the sensations of breathing. A region of your brain called the anterior insula is one of the primary areas affected by mindfulness training. For example, previous research has shown reduced insula activity in response to emotional and physiological stressors and an association between decreased insula activity and greater resilience after mindfulness training.
The right anterior insula is also largely responsible for interoception – and for computing body prediction errors. There’s some cool evidence from a study of elite adventure racers in which researchers had subjects perform a continuous cognitive task while under a variety of inspiratory breathing loads – an “interoceptive stressor”. Relative to the regular subjects, the elite racers performed better on the task while under an aversive breathing load, plus showed less of a right insula response during and after the experience. Interestingly, a study of mindfulness training showed the same thing – decreased right insula activity during an aversive loaded inspiratory breathing experience; both studies also show greater insula activity in athletes/meditators during anticipation of the load. This supports the theory that elite athletes’ brains may be better at interoceptive processing – similar to the effects seen with mindfulness training.
So…can we use mindfulness meditation to alter the brains of elite athletes to make them even better at interoception? A recent study attempted to answer that question, and early results are encouraging – elite BMX riders show functional brain changes consistent with the above patterns; after a 7 week mindfulness training program, their insula activity was enhanced during the anticipation phase and after the inspiratory breathing load task, consistent with athletes’ self-reported increased interoceptive awareness. So, if we wanted to make the case for a brain marker of performance under stress, the anterior insula is it – and we can potentially enhance its performance (and perhaps, then, our body’s) by meditating.

Considering meditation now? Here’s the good news. It gets better.

Your brain adapts functionally, and your perception of the experience changes.
When you think about mindfulness compared to something like transcendental meditation, yes, mindfulness is hard and often not fun at first. It requires focus and attention while also trying to not be focused, but not trying because it’s supposed to be effortless, and then yelling at yourself for thinking about what’s for dinner every 5 seconds instead of attending to your breath, and then yelling at yourself for yelling at yourself because you’re supposed to be non-judgmentally practicing open awareness and just bringing your attention back to your breath/internal sensation of choice.
At least that’s sometimes what happens when I meditate.
So it’s no wonder that this actually stresses people out more initially – when you look at the brains of novice mindfulness meditators vs experienced mindfulness meditators, their brain circuitry for “focused attention” actually activates way more. But then all the hard work pays off. For the experienced guys who have spent hours & hours training mindfulness, it does become effortless, so much so that their resting brain activity actually starts looking a lot like the focused meditative state. A mindful brain becomes their baseline.
Will a resting-state mindful brain result in race-day magic? We still don’t quite know. But here’s the take-away: by affecting brain regions associated with interoception, it may allow you to be more acutely aware of signals from your body – which can only help.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Mental Training Reboot Series: Wiring Your Brain for Resilience

A few years back I wrote a series on mental training & the brain science behind endurance sports for a now-departed multisport news website. Time for a reboot! Edited & updated for 2018. Enjoy.
We hear a lot about resilience in the endurance sports world – it’s practically built into the job title; to endure, one must be resilient. In psychology speak, resilience is simply your capacity to respond to adversity – to take bad circumstances and move beyond them, or perhaps even grow as a result of a failure/accident/spot of bad luck.
It’s not the ability to walk through life unscathed – we’re all human, and $#^& happens. You crash your bike. Something crashes into you while you’re on your bike. You’re chased by a moose while you’re on your bike. You get the idea – in endurance sports, there are plenty of opportunities for adversity. Particularly while on a bicycle.
Cue dramatic music…it’s all about the journey, right? How many times do we hear athletes talk about their “journey”? I’m pretty sure it’s right up there with all the “journeys” you hear referenced during an episode of The Bachelor.
But anyways, how you react to the stressors during your journey is a factor of how resilient you are as a human being and as an athlete. Do you bounce back? How quickly and effectively? And, are there mental training practices that can help you bounce like a kangaroo instead of 5 cases of expired Clif bars?
Yes. Yes there are.

Wiring Your Brain for Resilience

Here’s why it works: When you work on the mental skills that build resilience, you activate a specific set of regions in your brain. At first, maybe these neurons aren’t used to talking to each other, so the connections between them are weaker – they’re speaking through two paper cups tied together with a piece of string instead of the latest iPhone. So how do we train a neural circuit to make it more efficient? In short, the more frequently those neurons are firing, the stronger the neural pathway between them will become – neurons that fire together, wire together.
The key here is repetitionEvery time you’re practicing those resilience-building thoughts and behaviors, you’re forcing that circuit to fire, until eventually it becomes automatic – and so do those thoughts and actions.
What brain regions are involved in this circuit? A few cool studies can point us toward the brain areas that may be important. In a study of fire-fighters, subjects heard either a stressful or relaxing script being read while they were in an fMRI scanner. The more resilient they were, the more activity they had in the right amygdala, insula, and left orbitofrontal cortex when they listened to the stressful stimulus. These are regions involved in emotion regulation and interoception (awareness of your physical state) – suggesting that more resilient folks may be better able to call up the appropriate brain circuitry for emotion regulation when they need it.
In a second study, resilient Special Forces soldiers completed a monetary reward-anticipation task (exactly what it sounds like – you play a game where you think you’re getting money! Then you do or don’t get a lot of money.) Compared to (less resilient) civilians, the soldiers showed less of a difference in brain activity in 2 regions– the nucleus accumbens and subgenual prefrontal cortex – between high-reward and no-reward conditions.
So, there also seem to be differences in how more resilient people respond to reward (and presumably, failure). Makes sense, right? If your brain has less of a reaction to not receiving a reward it was expecting, you’re going to psychologically experience that as “getting over it faster.”

How do I make my brain work more like a Special Forces soldier or Firefighter’s brain, so that I can get past my bad race/injury/moose chase sooner?

1. Train your response to anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. 

You can do this by acknowledging these feeling when they arise, and then simultaneously calling up a positive feeling, gratitude, calm, & happiness. In other words, go to your happy place. By doing this repeatedly, you wire a positive emotion into a circuit that was previously bringing up distress and helplessness.
This process of rehearsal and reconsolidation is a key part of how your brain encodes memories, and it occurs in a network of regions distributed across your frontal cortex and hippocampus. This technique works well for athletes who maybe having problems performing following a bad race, slump, or injury.
When negative memories – your bike crash, the marathon you tanked – come to mind, hold on to that memory for a few minutes while you also bring in a positive experience – that race where you excelled, and all the great feelings that came with it. Essentially, you’re rewiring bad to good.

2. Build Optimism and Focus on Strengths.

Corny but true. Remind yourself of what you’re great at. (For the stereotypical triathlete, this shouldn’t be that hard.) If you need an objective reminder of this and/or love taking self-assessment tests online, go fill out the Signature Strengths Questionnaire. Remembering the good things that are a fundamental part of you helps you separate feelings that arise from a failure from your overall identity.

3. De-Catastrophize.

Minimize catastrophic thinking by first identifying that “worst-case scenario” you’re afraid of when something goes wrong. Then, think about the actual probability of that worst possible outcome playing out. Consider a broader range of possible outcomes, including the best-case scenario. The simple process of thinking about a great outcome can engender positive emotions and thoughts, and behaviors tend to stem from those thoughts. Finally, think about what the most likely scenario is.
And to hammer things home one last time: repeat, repeat, repeat. Force those happy neurons to talk to each other over and over, until they’re as tightly coupled together as peanut butter & pickles (it's a thing, trust me.) Then when the day comes that you need to drag yourself kicking/screaming/crying out of whatever hole you’ve fallen into, you’ll have one nice big resilient brain circuit there making it that much easier. It’s ok to wallow and hide for a bit, but you don’t want to be the dude that goes down and stays down.
The ability to harness techniques such as these is what can separate the resilient athletes who bounce back from setbacks from the less resilient, whose careers sometimes never recover from a slump. It’s all in your head – literally.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Roadrunner Rocks, 2018 - Muenster, Texas

A random weekend off in mid-November led to my third trip back to 4R Ranch & Vineyards in Muenster, Texas (the first for Red River Riot in 2017, and the second time for the 2017 edition of Roadrunner Rocks). If you ever find yourself in Texas Hill Country, this place is a must-stop. The drive in takes you through the town of Muenster, past which windmills start to dot the landscape and gravel roads abound. Seated at the top of some of that hard-pack, fast-rolling gravel is a barn housing the 4R Winery tasting room, from which Spinistry's annual fall ride and race starts.

Photo courtesy Spinistry
The morning was chilly with temps in the 40s, but sunny skies soon warmed us up. The boy and I both rode the 70 mile course...a nice walk (roll?) in the park with events like 24 Hours of Cumming (me), Spotted Horse Ultra (me), and the Race Across Texas (him) under our belts in the past several months. The "off-season" has been filled with work & teaching (as always, while I count down the last year and a half of residency), so it was nice to be back riding outside for the day.
Photo courtesy Jami Clayman
Like we've come to expect from Spinistry events, the setup & organization were impeccable, while retaining a no-frills GTFO-and-ride-your-bike gravel . As gravel continues to grow and attract those who want "swag", pros, and $$, it's nice to see Spinistry retain some middle ground between excess & grassroot minimalism.

View from the winery. Photo courtesy Spinistry.
Camping was available free with registration the night before and after - work didn't allow for that this year, but I can attest that there's great on-site camping! And the showers now have hot water 😂 No polar bear club this year!

Lauf Bikes were also available to demo (and ride for the entire race, if you wished). None small enough for me, but I heard nothing but rave reviews, and I got smoked by at least one person on a Lauf.
As for the actual ride: the start and finish of every race I've done out of 4R Ranch is the same. I have a love/hate relationship with it, and at least you always know what you're in for. Heading out is doubletrack-ish, often with a bunch of loose chunky stuff, made trickier by navigating between and around riders of different speeds. Entering the ranch? Up a steep, winding hill. But at least that's the only thing standing in between you and wine and barbecue by that point.

The always-appreciated wine flight at the end. I took home another bottle of Gravel Grinder Wine, too!
Photo courtesy Spinistry