Training the brain in sport and exercise: it’s not that complicated…

I just began the tenth leg of the Dallas Vertical Mile which involves running up the stairs of a 50-floor skyscraper twelve times in a row, non-stop (except for the elevator ride back down). It is 600 floors in total with a time limit of 2.5 hours. That’s right, 2.5 hours of maximal exertion. The total feet climbed is just a little more than a mile, hence the title Vertical Mile. It is considered one of the holy grails of tower running competitions. I trained for it by running up 13 flights of stairs three times a week for 15, 15 and 20 times with regular horizontal running and weight training the other days. My legs felt like lead, my heart felt like it was about to explode and my lungs screamed for air. This was pure, unadulterated pain. On top of that, as usual I was beginning to lose my ability to visually focus. This happens most often in long (greater than 50 floors) races causing one to trip occasionally on a step. I had two more trials after this one and I struggled to push through the pain and not give up.

Optimal performance in many sports involves dealing with pain. The faces of pain are many, ranging from the slow steady onset of fatigue during a marathon to the immediate onset during off-the-chart effort encountered in tower running or rowing. Another face of pain is seen in the impact when two bodies collide in football. One of my favorite sayings (and I can’t find or remember where it came from) is “It’s mind over matter; if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter”. This means if you don’t “mind” the pain, it doesn’t have an effect on what you are doing…it “doesn’t matter”. Research has uncovered some interesting aspects of physical effort and pain.

The topic became more real to me as I inevitably slowed down as a long-distance runner. Over time the maximum heart rate decreases inexorably. For me I still recall the day I went for a typical run of five miles and seemed to be moving in slow motion. I was forced to realize I truly was slowing down. What to do? Go vertical! Tower running involves running up the stairs of skyscrapers with competitions to earn money for charities taking places all over the world. Having been a life-long runner including two marathons and more shorter races than I can count, I thought I was familiar with the pain involved in maximal exertion. I was badly mistaken.

Back to the Vertical Mile. I finished the 10th trial and began the 11th. A strange confidence came over me and it seemed like my body was responding to the stress more effortlessly. I didn’t feel like I was on the verge of “blowing up”, towerrunner lingo for hitting the wall, going into lactic acid buildup at which time no amount of will can keep one moving; you’re done. I finished the 11th round and stepped across the timing mat to begin the final 12th climb to the top. At that point I had officially completed the Vertical Mile. One has to begin the final leg before the 2.5-hour limit and I was somewhere around an hour and a half.

People have died while pushing their bodies past the breaking point. Henry Worsley skied to exhaustion in Antarctica and Max Gilpin ran until his cells succumbed to the heat. So, it is possible, in rare cases, to override the automatic “stop” command from the brain to prevent damage to the organism. For the vast majority of time coping with pain/fatigue is a combination of physical and mental effort. In one military study, volunteers were broken into two groups. One group exercised on stationary bikes only while the other used the bikes and had to do a cognitive task at the same time. After 12 weeks the exercise only group improved their time to exhaustion by 42 percent. The exercise plus cognitive task group improved by 126 percent! This means mental activity has an effect on the ability to do exercise. It might be good to do an occasional workout after a full work day, when the brain is already tired from work.

Multiple studies have shown that what you believe effects your performance. The effect of the brain on perceived exhaustion was well demonstrated in a study where half the athletes were given a concoction they were told was proven to reduce lactic acid build-up while the others were given the usual Gatorade type drink. Far better performance was observed in the special drink. There was only one problem: the drinks were identical. Another of my favorite sayings: “You will achieve what you believe”! So, it’s not just a matter of physical conditioning. All training must involve conditioning the brain.

Of all the sports I have tried, towerrunning seems to be the most training specific exercise. By that I mean to do well one has to train on stairs…a lot. One of my guilty pleasures is seeing the faces on climbers half my age at the top (finish) of a stair race. They assume, unfortunately incorrectly, that their horizontal running will transfer over to vertical. It is the only sport I know of where 40, 50 even 60-year old’s beat out 20 somethings in a race. This is no doubt due to the need to specifically train for towerrunning and the fact that it is the most demanding activity on earth. Think about it…there is not one second to catch your breath in stair racing unless you stop. One common piece of advice to newbies to the sport is do not think about what you are doing, i.e. don’t look at what floor you are on or how many stairs are left to climb. If you do, the perceived exertion increases dramatically and makes it almost impossible to continue. Once again, we see the huge contribution of the mental aspect of dealing with pain/effort.

After all the research is read and applied, there remains one enduring, simple plan. It worked for me to do the Vertical Mile and has been followed by elite athletes for ages. And it’s pretty easy to remember if difficult to do: Push your mind and body in training day after day. Do 15 or 20 repeats or whatever measure applies to your sport, to exhaustion, then do another. Athletes can all recognize when they have truly hit exhaustion, the time to gather your stuff and go home. That’s the time to do one or two more. Don’t worry about what your Fitbit or Apple Watch or heart rate or VO2 max is telling you each day. Look for trends over weeks or longer periods of time. For me the command once I hit exhaustion was to keep my legs moving on the stairs. I was far too exhausted to actually run up the stairs two at a time. Then an amazing thing started to happen. The 10 repetitions going up the 13 floors no longer felt exhausting so I moved on to 15. After about six weeks the 15 felt like a “normal” workout, so I moved on to 20. The first time I did 20 I took a nap later in the day. Then one day sitting down for dinner the thought crossed my mind that I had missed a workout. I had not. I no longer had the overwhelming fatigue of having done 13 floors 20 times earlier in the day. The physical benefits are obvious, but there is also brain training going on. The brain learns “Yes you can do it”. The brain can also act out like a stubborn two-year-old.

I had just crossed the timing line to begin the 12th and final trial of the Vertical Mile and it happened. My brain said “you’re done”. What! No, I’m not said the good angel on my right shoulder. The bad angel on the left said “You’re goal was to finish the Vertical Mile. It’s now in the books. To be official you had to begin trial 12 before the 2.5-hour limit. You did that”. There is no doubt in my mind that this mental drama had an effect on my ability to climb. Had the rules been to finish at the top of the 12th trial I am sure my time on the last trial would have been a lot faster. The brain is a powerful thing. The final time was one hour 43 minutes, well under the time limit of 2.5 hours.

Want the most bang for your buck (and time) in an exercise routine? Try the stairs. You won’t do two at a time at first but if you stick at it you will find that wonderful, exciting time where one stair at a time feels awkward and you just automatically find yourself doing two. It will hurt like hell at first (it’s the most challenging exercise there is) but if you keep at it you may, like me, find yourself at the starting line in a race to the top of a building.

The role of the brain in physical performance…it’s more than you think

Anyone who has participated in an athletic event who was trying to seriously beat the other contestants knows of exercise fatigue, a.k.a. “hitting the wall” or “bonking”. Your legs feel like lead, you can’t breathe fast enough for your oxygen starved body and your heart feels like it’s going to explode. Is it the same situation that a car is in when it runs out of gas? The pedal is down to the floor but no life from the engine. There is some fascinating research on this topic that goes beyond the old “is it mental or is it physical” question.

Several things happen when one hits “the wall”. Lactic acid builds up (it’s really lactate and not lactic acid. It become lactic acid when lactate is exposed to air). The heart reaches the limit of blood flow. The exercise to air ratio moves into such a deficit that further exercise come to a halt. Here is what happens: At low running speeds, your effort is primarily aerobic (with oxygen). At higher speeds, your legs demand energy at a rate that cannot be met so you have to use fast-burning an-aerobic (without oxygen) energy sources. The problem is that muscles contracting without oxygen produce lactic acid. However, we are not cars that have run out of gas. We have this thing called a brain that complicates things more than we realized. It doesn’t matter if it’s the heat, or cold, or screaming muscles, or lactic acid, it’s how the brain interprets the signals that counts. But there’s a bigger problem. You can hit the wall with a heart rate well below max, modest lactate levels and muscles that still twitch on demand. The physiological indicators do not match the perceived effort.

Consider this Yale University study. A group of volunteers were given an “indulgent” high calorie milk shake or a “sensible” low calorie shake. The appetite hormones of the group given the high calorie shake plunged after drinking it, but did not change when they drank the “sensible” shake. Problem was, the milk shakes were identical! In another study 35 volunteers trained three times a week for an hour at a time on stationary bikes. Half the volunteers did “brain training”, cognitive tasks like selecting the target figure out of a variety of shapes, to produce mental fatigue; the other half just rode the bike. After twelve weeks the physical only training improved their time to exhaustion by 42%. The brain trained group improved by 126%! Their advice…if you are training for a race train when you are mentally fatigued…like after work. Then there is this thing called VO2 max, the ability of the muscles to utilize oxygen. The higher the VO2 max the fitter the athlete…or maybe not. Endurance athletes have hearts that pump so powerfully that the blood does not have time to load up with oxygen as it passes the lungs. In all out exercise, we see measurable drops in available oxygen levels. There’s actually a name for it…exercise induced arterial hypoxemia. So, you have extremely fit people that when looking only at their blood gas levels appear to be couch potatoes. A person under hypnosis touched by what he/she thinks is a red-hot poker (actually the tip of a pen) produces a blister. In another study 30 elite swimmers were put through a series of pain tests by cutting off circulation to the arm with a blood pressure cuff and having them clench/unclench their fist. These swimmers were compared to club-level swimmers and non-athletes. The pain threshold was the same for all three groups. The pain tolerance was 132 contractions for the elite group, 89 for the club and 50 for the non-athletes. Their conclusion…train to pain. Pain tolerance is linked to the type of training done. Athletes that train using medium intensity workouts do not increase their pain tolerance; high intensity workouts increase pain tolerance, by as much as 41% in some studies. No pain no gain appears to be true. The last study is particularly mind-blowing. There is an instant performance boost when you ingest a carbohydrate drink. There is also a performance boost when you take it in and immediately spit it out; it never enters the bloodstream. Further research found the mouth has sensors that relay the mere presence of carbohydrates to the brain.

My training is atypical. I’m a tower runner. Tower runners run up flights of stairs as fast as possible to benefit some cause like disabled veteran and first responders or those with respiratory diseases (Fight for Air Climbs). The buildings are big, as many as 108 floors. Try it sometime. Next time you are in a building use the stairs, go to the top, take the elevator down and repeat 10 times. Don’t do it if you need to remain socially acceptable. You will sweat profusely. Your legs turn to lead, your heart feels like it will explode and you can’t no matter how hard you try breath fast and deep enough. My training is atypical because I set the workout to exhaustion, say 10 stair repeats and add two more. At some point the “two more” become the norm, it feels automatic. If it’s 95 degrees out I do another flip. Rather than the reasonable seemingly healthy choice of skipping hill work I do it mid-day, when it is hottest. Over time, that becomes the new norm. When confronted with a race in a hot building there is no shock to my body. As hot as a stairwell can get it rarely reaches 95 degrees, so the 80 degrees is not a shock. The hill I use to train on is steep, too steep to safely run down or even walk quickly. There are no stairs I would encounter in a race as steep as the hill. When confronted with an odd-ball building with stairs the angle of bleachers, it’s business as usual. I recall an old war movie with a submarine in crisis nearing the crush point as it plunged to the bottom of the ocean. As the crew feverishly tried to start the engines the commander called a fire drill! His reasoning…”that’s the perfect time to call a drill…that’s when fires happen…when all sh**t has broken loose”. From that time on any fire emergency will pale in the stress level compared to that drill…the crew has a new norm.

We are talking about mind training as much as body training. The risk, of course, is over-training. One is essentially on a razors edge. If you push the body beyond its ability to handle the stress it will break down. If you just nudge the needle almost at but not on the breaking point, the body and mind learns the new norm.

This is also good news for all of us as we get older. So much focus is placed on the loss of muscle fiber, the drop in blood ejection factor of the heart, the drop in ability to use oxygen. These are inevitable, but the brain has a role in physical performance unless we chose to believe all the dire warnings of reduced performance. Could it be that our drop in performance as we age is largely due to mis-belief? You achieve what you believe!