How to Hack Your Brain to Optimize Performance

Move the dial with the power of science

Sep 19, 2016
Outside Magazine

You can do better.    Photo: shironosov/iStock

Hack your brain and optimize performance with these five science-tested strategies.

Train Tired

Samuele Marcora suggests scheduling some workout sessions on stationary equipment in an “acute state of mental fatigue,” like after a tough day at work or after taking the cognitively challenging Stroop test online. (Find it at When you remove the added brain stress on race day, the physical effort will feel easier.

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Rock Out

Listening to music isn’t an option in some races, but if yours permits, it can reduce perceived effort. 

Boost Power

Discreetly plant positive words and images, like YOU GOT THIS or a smiley face, in strategic places to help you during your event. Write them on your arm, your bike, or your shoes. Hide them in snack bags. Both direct and subliminal positive messaging have been shown to improve endurance performance. When Marcora showed the words GO, ENERGY, and LIVELY to cyclists, they performed better than riders shown STOP, TOIL, and SLEEP.

Your Fatigue Is All In Your Head
Can athletes train their brains to reach unheard-of levels of peak performance?
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Turn Up the Heat

Get your hot friends to hang out near the crux of your course to cheer you on. Studies have shown that physical effort is easier when performing in the presence of people you’re attracted to.


Tracking your Rating of Perceived Exertion (find the scale at can help gauge whether you’re actually working hard or just think you are. After each training session, record your RPE and multiply it by how many minutes you worked out. This will be your overall training load. By looking at your RPE in combination with other performance metrics like heart rate and power output, you can target why and when you’re struggling—for example, if your perceived exertion is higher than normal for a given heart rate, your brain needs a rest day.

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