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.