How Does the Brain of an Elite Athlete Work?

Red Bull Project Endurance teamed up with neuroscientists from Burke/Cornell to find out.
© Michael Darter
By Nate Hoppes

For Project Endurance, the Red Bull High Performance team partnered with neuroscientists from Burke Medical Research Institute/Cornell Medical College to look at how the brain of an elite athlete works, and how it can be positively impacted for further athletic performance.

The team of scientists analyzed the neuro-physiological response to brain stimulation (trans-cranial magnetic stimulation) in an effort to further understand why athletes stop or slow down. If the brain is stimulated in the right way can an athlete go further during training?

Triathlete Jesse Thomas, endurance mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, cyclocross rider Tim Johnson and BMX racer Mike Day were subjected to the testing.

Thomas was kind enough to provide us a first hand account from Project Endurance.
 

Jesse Thomas undergoes a variety of physiological tests
Jesse undergoes a variety of physiological tests © Michael Darter

I got a call from Per Lundstam, manager of the Red Bull High Performance Group. He asked if I’d be cool coming down to Red Bull Headquarters to do some performance testing and something about brain monitoring with Cornell University researchers.

As a brand new Red Bull athlete, I had no idea what to expect. But it sounded fun, so I agreed. What I came to find out is that this is what the Red Bull High Performance team does -- they bring together athletes from different disciplines so that we can test our own limits while learning from each other and gaining new perspectives.

They also mix in some unexpected trainers and/or experiences – sometimes athletes work with musicians, explorers, military members, spiritual leaders and others all in an effort to help boost an athlete’s performance through unconventional training.

Fun is one way to put what I experienced in my week, but I could also call it intense, painful, limit pushing, and shocking...literally.

Physically and mentally, this was one of most stressful training experiences I’ve ever had. As a long course triathlete, I obviously do a lot of exercise, and the total time spent here was way less than my typical week. But, the intensity level was out of this world. My typical race is two-to-four hours, so doing six all-out 5 minute time trials in four days was a huge shock to the system.

But I was stoked to see gradual improvement over the week and on the velodrome as my body and mind adapted to the effort level in spite of the fatigue.

Who knows, maybe the brain frying worked.

Jesse Thomas has his blood drawn during testing.
Jesse Thomas has his blood drawn during testing. © Michael Darter

But what really made the camp was the people. It was a blast to get to know Rebecca Rusch, Mike Day, and even Tim Johnson! Seriously, we all had a blast sharing a super crazy experience.

The Red Bull performance staff and the many PHDs, MDs, Directors, Specialists, etc all added unique insight into to the environment. I was amazed how seamlessly they worked together, despite clear differences in background and expertise. As a result, I think everyone learned a ton, and will continue to do so as the data is analyzed a million different ways.

Here’s How It Went Down:

Days 1-3

6:30 a.m. - Wake up. Turn in sleep monitor, get blood drawn, pee in cup, eat breakfast. You know, you’re normal wake up routine.

7:00 a.m. - Baseline brain monitoring. Basically, I hook up to this Hellraiser-looking thing and stare at a wall for 15 minutes keeping my eyes steady. Try to do this at 7 a.m. and not fall asleep, I dare you!

8:00 a.m. - Tim (Johnson, a RB CXer/cyclist and my camp roommate) and I ride into HQ from the house because it takes the same amount of time as driving (about 45 minutes). Tim gives me crap about my “dorky” tri bike, aero helmet, and the fact that I wear no socks, all as he hotdogs, bunny hops, and skids his way through traffic. I am both annoyed and impressed.


9:00 a.m. - I’m third out of four athletes. The other two being endurance MTBer Rebecca Rusch and BMXer Mike Day, so I try to relax and NOT think about the pain ahead.

11 a.m. - I start the protocol. I measure my body weight, fat percent, and get 19 different physiological monitors stuck to my body. My chest hair does not cooperate and requires strategic shaving.

12:00 p.m. - Warm up protocol - 15 minutes on the stationary bike - 5 @ 180W, 5 @ 270W, 5 @ 325W. W is for watts, basically a ramp to hardish.

12:20 p.m. - Put the brain monitor on. Which includes a nice towel off from one of the PhD's.

12:30 p.m. - Get my brain fried -- or stimulated, as the scientists would say. My brain monitor is hooked up to computer and I sit in a chair for 20 minutes with my eyes closed, relaxing. I feel a slight tingle but nothing crazy.

1:00 p.m. - Staged cycling and isometric shocking, the meat of the testing. This starts with 5 minutes on the bike at 390 Watts (very hard, 16-17 out of 20) with all of the monitors on, and a VO2 system (read, breathing tube). The moment this is over I sit on a leg press machine and get shocked about 25 times -- first my hand, then my calf, then in my leg AS I PUSH AS HARD AS CAN INTO THE LEG PRESS. This is not comfortable. Then I do all that - 5 min hard + shock press - 3 more times. Fun!

1:45 p.m. - Twenty more minutes of brain frying.

2:15 p.m. - Five to 10 minute easy spin. Then...ALL OUT 4K TIME TRIAL. This is literally balls to wall as hard as you can go for about 5 minutes. For a guy used to long distance racing, it is death.

2:30 p.m. - Gear off, one hour easy spin in Santa Monica. Go home, eat dinner, go to bed. Repeat.

Jesse Thomas time trials during Project Endurance.
Jesse Thomas time trials during Project Endurance. © Michael Darter

After three days of brutality in the RB Headquarters Pain Cave, we went to the velodrome to do a similar protocol, but in a more real world environment. Most of us, myself included, had never been on velodrome before and the steepness of that thing was intimidating to say the least.

My first time trial was pretty slow, I think because I spent most of my energy trying not to eat crap. Eventually though, all of us got the hang of it, and I even battled Tim back and forth for fastest 4k time (and won, triathlon-nerds unite!). It was super tough, but a fun way to end the camp.

Now we wait and see what the researchers uncover – if we stimulate our brains can we go further and push beyond previous limits?

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