Per­for­mance en­hance­ment has evolved and sport­ing bod­ies are strug­gling to keep up. MF in­ves­ti­gates the lat­est bound­ary-shift­ing in­no­va­tions – and how you can ben­e­fit from them to­day

Men's Fitness - - Contents - Words Matt Huckle Il­lus­tra­tions Paul Blow

Some of th­ese cut­tingedge meth­ods of boost­ing per­for­mance will blow your mind. Al­most lit­er­ally

Strug­gling to bet­ter your 5K time? If us­ing elec­tric­ity to stim­u­late your brain sounds like an eas­ier so­lu­tion than an­other set of hill in­ter­vals, it could be time to try tran­scra­nial di­rect cur­rent stim­u­la­tion (tDCS). This is done in what you might call the old­fash­ioned way – by at­tach­ing elec­trodes to your tem­ples.

‘We wanted to un­der­stand if it was the brain or the body that limited phys­i­cal per­for­mance, or a com­bi­na­tion of both,’ says Dr Holden McRae, pro­fes­sor of sports medicine at Pep­per­dine Uni­ver­sity in Cal­i­for­nia, who re­cently led a team of sci­en­tists for a Red Bull study called Project En­durance. ‘ We found that it’s the brain that’s the lim­iter.’

Ac­cord­ing to McRae this isn’t sur­pris­ing. ‘We are home­o­static or­gan­isms, which means we seek a con­di­tion of bal­ance or calm in our in­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment. Our brains are not go­ing to al­low us to get to a stage where we can cause dam­age to our sys­tems by do­ing too much ex­er­cise.’

Of course, any ath­lete’s first ques­tion about their brain lim­iter is, ‘How do I turn it off?’ That’s where tDCS comes in. ‘The next step was to see if we could stim­u­late or in­crease the ac­tiv­ity in the brain re­gions re­spon­si­ble for ac­ti­vat­ing the leg mus­cles while cy­cling,’

DO IT YOUR­SELF Run faster… via bore­dom

Men­tal fa­tigue im­pedes phys­i­cal per­for­mance, ac­cord­ing to a study by ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy spe­cial­ist Sa­muele Mar­cora, pub­lished in 2009 – but the good news is, you can use this ex­act ef­fect to com­pete bet­ter. Here’s McRae’s three-step plan.


First, train af­ter do­ing a bor­ing men­tal task. ‘The per­cep­tion of what you’re do­ing is “Wow, this is re­ally dif­fi­cult”,’ says McRae. Do this a few times. says McRae. ‘ We’re re­set­ting your brain’s “soft­ware” to al­low for a bet­ter out­put. It’s like hav­ing a 5MB/s down­load speed but be­ing able to in­crease it to 15MB/s.’

Re­sults vary. ‘The re­sponses are in­di­vid­ual – some peo­ple re­spond well, oth­ers not at all,’ says McRae. ‘We had ath­letes ride a 4km time trial af­ter a se­ries of fa­tigu­ing ex­er­cises. If we stim­u­lated them be­fore the fa­tigu­ing ex­er­cises, the av­er­age times were im­proved.’

The ef­fects only last around 90 min­utes and there aren’t yet any stud­ies on the longterm ef­fects that this kind of elec­tri­cal stim­u­la­tion might have. Ver­dict: risky.


The good news is that if you do have the co­jones to zap your­self for more speed, the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency (Wada) isn’t go­ing to tell you off for it. Not yet, any­way. ‘The de­bate about whether or not it’s a form of cheat­ing hasn’t re­ally hap­pened yet,’ says Nick Wo­jek, head of science and medicine at UK Anti-Dop­ing, the Bri­tish arm of Wada. ‘It may not even end up be­ing an anti-dop­ing de­ci­sion be­cause no chem­i­cals are in­volved, but it could be banned by the gov­ern­ing bod­ies of in­di­vid­ual sports where the benefits are con­sid­ered un­fair.’


‘Make sure you’re men­tally rested be­fore a big com­pe­ti­tion or PB at­tempt,’ says McRae. Use the Breathe2Re­lax app to calm your­self down.


With less men­tal fa­tigue, you should go sig­nif­i­cantly faster. ‘That’s more prac­ti­cal for an ath­lete than elec­tro­cut­ing them­selves,’ says McRae.

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