How To Train The Runner's Brain - An Interview With Jason Fitzgerald

As productive human athletes, we just assume that we can knock down any walls put in front of us and conquer new feats of greatness if "we just put our mind to it."  Our conscious brain sets goals, gives pep talks and convinces us that with the right training plan, we can finish a race of any distance. 

But, when we're stretching our training run farther than ever before, the little voice in our head pops up to try to talk some sense into us; "that's enough for today" or "there's a lot of pain happening right now, time to quit."  

As I discussed in last week's post about the central governor theory, neuropsychologists are finding new ways to acknowledge and actually train the conscious brain to ignore or at least delay the stop orders coming from the subconscious, physiological control center.

In his recent TED talk, David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, described the brain's circuit breaker role this way;


"Our brain acts as a limiter, preventing us from accessing all of our physical resources, because we might hurt ourselves, tearing tendons or ligaments. But the more we learn about how that limiter functions, the more we learn how we can push it back just a bit, in some cases by convincing the brain that the body won't be in mortal danger by pushing harder."

How exactly can we do that? For practical answers on all things running, my "go-to" source is Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, USATF-certified coach and founder of Strength Running, a terrific resource of advice and tools helping over 150,000 runners per month.  
I asked Jason about his thoughts on the topic of brain training and for some "try this today" tips that we can all start using.

Fight Fatigue By Overriding Your Brain's Urge To Quit

Tired marathon runner
What makes an endurance athlete quit? Not quit the sport, but quit during a competition.  Every runner, swimmer, or cyclist starts a race with the desire to win or at least achieve a personal best time.  They’ve done the pre-race math - keep at a certain pace for the entire distance to achieve the target time.  Their wearable technology keeps them updated on heart rate, distance and split times to stay on that pace.  

However, at the finish line, many athletes are not able to maintain their strides/strokes per minute, giving in to the perception that their energy tank is empty.

For a long time, it has been assumed that a physiological breakdown must have happened along the way - energy levels were depleted, muscles seized up.  But what if the main limitation to better performance was in the athlete’s head?  There is a growing, and often heated, discussion on the role of the brain in controlling, regulating and even sabotaging an athlete from pushing through perceived physiological fatigue to break through a performance plateau.

Marathons Are Tough On The Heart, But Training Helps

Boston Marathon start line
Now that it’s mid-April, thousands of amateur runners are realizing the time has come to get serious about their Spring marathon training plans.  The easier 4-6 mile weekday jogs increase quickly into 10-15 mile weekend long runs.  For those new to endurance distances, this jump in mileage can put a strain not only on the legs but also on the heart.  

In fact, there’s been some confusing research in the press lately with some claiming a marathon can do some coronary damage while others praising the health benefits of the cardiovascular training.

Maybe Your Kids Don't Want To Play Sports

Girl soccer players on bench
Has this happened to you?  Your daughter comes home from soccer practice and defiantly declares, “I can’t stand my coach, my team is awful and I don’t even like soccer.  I quit!”  Your parental thermostat kicks in as you try to gently lower the temperature in the room with those responses that all kids despise, “Oh, come on now, it can’t be that bad” or “But you’re good at soccer” and finally, “You know our rule, once you start something, you have to finish it. You can’t quit.”

You’ll talk to her coach, you’ll buy her new cleats, even get her on a better team.  But as parents, we often don’t even consider the remote possibility that… wait for it…. our child does not want to play soccer, or basketball or golf or even Aussie rules football.

Well-meaning articles about the tragedy of kids quitting sports are just a Google search away (heck, I even wrote one.)  Usually, we place the blame elsewhere with the assumption that all kids love sports, so if mine doesn’t then something must be wrong with the system.  Instead, we should delve deeper into the unique interests and needs of our son or daughter to find out if there is a better matched activity out there that doesn’t involve a ball, puck or $200 shoes.

Achieving The Rise Of Flow: An Interview With Steven Kotler

Ted Ligety
Ted Ligety
Two years before he stood on the Sochi Olympics podium with a gold medal around his neck, alpine skier Ted Ligety took a trip to Alaska.  There was no qualifying race or Team USA training session, but rather a heli-skiing trek in the Chugach Mountains with a film crew from Warren Miller Entertainment.  The risk level was high, even for one of the best skiers in the world.  But that's what keeps the best on the knife's edge balance of skill and fear.  To survive requires being in the state of Flow.

"The Flow State is a place where the impossible becomes possible, where time slows down and a perfect moment becomes attainable," Director Max Bervy said. "This film reveals what it is like to be completely immersed in the present ... completely immersed in the snow, in the mountains, and in the enjoyment of winter."

After a great performance, many athletes have described a feeling of being “in the zone.” In this state, they feel invincible, as if the game slowed down, the crowd noise fell silent and they achieved an incredible focus on their mission. What is this Superman-like state and how can players enter it when they most need it?

Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler
photo credit: Ryan Heffernan
Steven Kotler, New York Times best-selling author and co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project, has spent over a decade studying Flow as experienced by dozens of unconventional action-adventure athletes. Unconventional in their live-in-the-moment, who-needs-10,000-hours attitudes, these athletes, including snowboarders, surfers and rock climbers, test the limits of their abilities with laser focus.  Anything less and their lives may be in danger.

Released last week, Kotler's new book, "The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance", breaks down the science of Flow and how each of us can learn to use it in our everyday life.

During a recent conversation, Steven and I discussed what all of this means for the future of athlete development.

How To Measure An Athlete's Intangibles

Bob Schafer Prophecy Sciences
Dr. Bob Schafer (seated) of Prophecy Sciences at SSAC14
One of the unmistakable takeaways from the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is that teams across all sports are looking for the “next big thing” that will offer a competitive advantage.  For most of the 2,000 attendees at this year’s event, the holy grail was assumed to be buried somewhere in the Big Data world of sports statistics and their endless permutations and combinations.  Unfortunately, data of any kind represents the past rather than a true prediction of your team’s future performance. Stats can tell us what happened but struggle to explain the intangibles of athletes, like leadership, tenacity, stress and team chemistry that coaches admit are the real determinants of sports success.

Quietly tucked away in a corner of the conference’s “start-up trade show” was a company demonstrating technology that just might provide the missing proactive measurement of an athlete’s “soft skills”.  Bob Schafer, CEO of Prophecy Sciences, was offering demos of their system to brave souls passing by their booth.  As Dr. Bob (he and his co-founders are Stanford neuroscience PhDs) connected a watch-like device to the left wrist and sensors to the left fingertips of one such brave soul, it became apparent that this system was in a different league than your standard “brain training”.  With an eye tracker staring back at the user and a headset for infrared sensing, a 30 minute set of games begins on the computer screen.

Why NFL Combine Results For Jadeveon Clowney And Johnny Manziel Don't Matter

Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney at 2014 NFL Scouting Combine
With the Olympics over and the NBA and NHL not yet into playoff mode, the NFL knows its fans need a shot of football in late winter. To prepare us (and the team general managers and coaches) for the NFL Draft in early May, 300 of the best college football players visited Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis last week for the annual NFL Scouting Combine.

While there are specific drills that the players go through for each position, it is the six workout drills, testing strength, agility, jumping and speed, that generate the most TV coverage and conversation.  However, sport science researchers keep putting out study after study that shows that not only are the six tests redundant but that they also have little correlation to actual NFL performance, making them poor predictors for success.

World Class Conditioning Will Be Key To World Cup Success

U.S. Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann
Jürgen Klinsmann understands what it takes to compete in a World Cup.  With eleven goals for the German national team across the 1990, 1994 and 1998 tournaments, he is still the sixth leading goalscorer in World Cup history. 

As he prepares the U.S. men’s national team for this year’s trip to Brazil, his message of preparation begins with world-class fitness.  Now, a new research review from three sports scientists confirms Klinsmann’s obsession with being in top condition.

“The level in the World Cup is two or three levels higher, and the reality is that the last two years of World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup don't give you the real picture,” Klinsmann, the U.S. head coach, told U.S. Soccer. “The global picture is facing the strongest nations in the World Cup, and you need to be prepared. It’s not easy to put a number on it, but it requires at least 30 to 40 percent more than what we have needed so far."


Music That Matches Your Movements Pumps Up Your Workout

If you visit any gym, weight room or running track, you are sure to see the same critical training device being worn by athletes of all ages - a pair of headphones connected to their portable music.  Without it, workouts seem out of sync, longer and more difficult.  

Researchers have told us for years that there is a motivational link between exercise and music, but an interesting new study has now discovered that the connection goes even deeper, especially when an athlete can create his or her own beat.

Just listening to music isn’t enough to launch our training workout into high gear; it has to be the right music at the right beat.  For runners, cognitive research has shown that choosing music with a beats per minute cadence that matches our stride gives our steps a rhythm to follow.  Training becomes more efficient with the perception that the effort required is less.  But what effect does music have on strength building sessions or skill building drills?  Would athletes perform better if the music was created by their movements rather than just accompany them?

Why Your Soccer Players Need A Performance Dashboard

Metrifit athlete dashboard
As strange as it may sound, when it comes to performance and health, many coaches can manage their cars better than they can manage their players.  Every time their car goes into the shop, a full history of diagnostic tests, odometer readings, scheduled maintenance recommendations and past problems are available from a few keystrokes of the service computer system.  Take the vehicle out on the road for a long drive and the dashboard displays the speed, miles covered, fuel level and warning lights for any pending sub-system malfunctions.

Until recently, this type of in-depth information and tracking data for athletes was not easily captured in a single database system.  Metrics from training and competition needed to be collected manually then consolidated into a general purpose spreadsheet or desktop database.  If the player changed teams or moved up or down to different levels within the same club, any data collected was often lost to the next coaching staff.