Cracking the Athlete's Brain

Researchers are showing everyday athletes how to train their brains to perform like the pros

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    Photo: McCaughey/Karsh

It goes without saying that Olympic athletes need to be strong, fit, and tough. But none of that matters if they aren't capable of adapting quickly to unexpected circum-stances. Take former Slovenian swimmer Sara Isakovic. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with one length remaining in the 200-meter freestyle final, disaster struck. Isakovic misjudged her final flip turn, and as she uncoiled her legs to explode off the wall, she could feel her toes just barely graze it.

"I remember thinking, This is not happening! Why now?" Isakovic, 25, recalls. "Then, in a split second, I was able to refocus." Riding on a surge of adrenaline, she tore down the last length to nab a silver medal, breaking the previous world record and missing gold by just 0.15 seconds.

Isakovic is now a research assistant in psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, where she works with Martin Paulus, a leading player in the search for brain--training techniques that will enable the rest of us to develop elite-level mental agility. Says Isakovic, "What we're interested in is how you build resilience, how you train your brain to be as tough as your body."

For the past five years, Paulus and his team have employed advanced imaging tools to understand the difference between normal and ultra-resilient brains. They've discovered that the distinction often resides in the interplay between two areas: the insular cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPC. The insular cortex monitors data from the outside world and from within the body—muscle tension, glucose levels, blood pressure, blood-oxygen levels. The MPC, meanwhile, decides how strongly to respond to those signals.

In a series of studies starting in 2009, Paulus and his colleagues put hardened Marines, elite adventure racers, and regular Joes through various cognitive tasks while monitoring their brain activity in real time with an fMRI scanner. To provide an "aversive stimulus"—a scaled-down version of the stress they'd experience when coming under enemy fire or taking a wrong turn during a multi-day race—the researchers occasionally interfered with subjects' breathing, restricting airflow to masks they were wearing.

The subjects knew the sensation was coming but not always when. Some members of the control group panicked and had to be removed from the scanner, but the Marines and the adventure racers handled the scenario with ease. In the fMRI scanner, they showed higher activation in the insular cortex immediately before the restricted breathing started. They had, essentially, prepared themselves for the unpleasant sensation. Then, while it was happening, the same region of the brain showed lower activ-ity and carried on with business as usual. "That kind of anticipation and preparation is critical," Paulus says.

The goal, then, is to train your brain to anticipate, and not overreact, to unexpected stress. For a whitewater kayaker, that means staying calm and making the right strokes after getting caught in a hole; for a runner, it means pushing through the pain to stay on pace late in a race. Paulus believes that neurofeedback training, in which subjects try to alter their resiliency-related brain patterns based on real-time data from an fMRI scanner, is not far off.

For now, the most promising technique is one that's already familiar to many professional athletes: meditation. Paulus's latest study put 30 Marine recruits through a program in mindfulness, an approach to self-awareness with roots in Buddhist teachings. "You learn to monitor how your body actually feels while suspending judgment about it," Paulus explains.

In the study, subjects followed an eight-week course that taught simple breathing exercises, sitting and walking meditation, yoga, and techniques like "body scans," in which they focused awareness on each part of their bodies, progressing from head to toe.

Brain scans before and after revealed that the trainees acquired some of the same brain patterns that the Marines and adventure racers had shown in the earlier experiments. More surprising, the changes persisted a year later. The biggest effects were in the MPC, which moderates knee-jerk responses to external stimuli.

Of course, there are many routes to the same goal. "There are similarities between mindfulness and the state of focus that athletes achieve through long hours of repetitive training," says Christopher Bergland, a triple-Ironman champion who covered 153.8 miles to set a 24-hour treadmill world record in 2004. That state of mindfulness helped him push his endurance to new levels, he says.

Isakovic, too, certainly honed her ability to listen closely and dispassionately to her body's feedback during the many years and countless hours spent staring at the bottom of a practice pool. But with the tools of neuro-science, the process can be made more efficient and accessible, Paulus believes. "We can't all be Olympic athletes, that's clear," he acknowledges. "But if our brains are trained properly, we can do amazing things beyond what most people imagine."

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