by Alex Hutchinson
A few years ago, I did 12 weeks of “brain endurance training” as part of my preparation for the Ottawa Marathon, then wrote about the experience for Runner’s World.
The training program was based on ideas developed by Samuele Marcora, a researcher at the University of Kent. By forcing yourself to perform mentally fatiguing tasks, he argued, you could improve the brain’s ability to resist mental fatigue—just as exhausting yourself physically in training builds your physical endurance.
I recently got an e-mail from a friend who is preparing for the Tokyo Marathon next February. He’d recently seen me describe my experiences with braining endurance training in this talk that I gave at last year’s Endurance Research Conference. He’s interested in pushing his limits and trying new ways to improve, and wanted to know whether I thought brain training was worth a try, and if so, how to go about it.
I’ve been putting off my reply for a few weeks now—because it’s a tricky question. I often write about neat ideas with future potential; but in practice, condemning someone to spend hours clicking buttons in response to arrows and letters and shapes on a computer screen (as I did) is not something you do lightly.
So here, in the end, are the points I want to convey:
1. There is preliminary evidence that brain endurance training works. In a 2015 update, Marcora presented results from a study funded by the British Ministry of Defence that seem almost too good to be true: a 126-percent increase in time to exhaustion among untrained subjects doing a combined mental and physical training routine, compared to just 42 percent among those doing only the physical training. Lots more validation needs to be done, but it’s encouraging.
2. You don’t get benefits just by, say, doing crosswords and multiplying large numbers in your head. One of the key mental demands of endurance exercise is “response inhibition”—the ability to resist the urge to pull your finger out of a candle flame (or to slow down in a race). Brain endurance training focuses on specific endurance-linked aspects of mental fatigue.
Read the rest of this article at Runners World.