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How far can science push your body?

Brain
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In This Series

Brain Doping

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 old- fashioned 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,’ 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 long-term effects that this kind of electrical stimulation might have. Verdict: risky.

Is it allowed?

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.’

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.

Train bored

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.

Rest your brain

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

Smash your PB

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

Matt joined Men’s Fitness in April 2014 as features writer after spending several years writing for a luxury lifestyle magazine, swapping champagne and canapés for cardio and leg days.

Matt is a keen Thai boxer and his interest in fitness took off when he made the decision to compete semi-professionally and had to get in shape. Training aside, he says the worst thing about fighting is resisting the urge to apologise all the time. 

Oh, and he’s still on the look out for a decent fight nickname after being told ‘The Best’ was reaching a little bit…

Favourite move: Any kind of squat variation

Favourite sport: MMA and Muay Thai kickboxing

Personal best: Competing in a semi-pro K1 bout

Targets: Sub-1hr 40m half marathon and winning a fight by KO

Scariest MF moment: Writing about myself in the third-person for this profile

Favourite MF website story: Spider-Man workout (opens in new tab)

Favourite trainer quote: ‘Hands up, chin down’ – every striking coach ever

Biggest gym crime: Avoiding the weights and sticking to the treadmill