Can Brain-Training Apps Boost Your Mental Endurance?
A handful of new products are claiming they can. The jury's still out on whether they deliver enough of an edge to justify the agony.
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The hardest marathon workouts I’ve ever done involved sitting in an office chair, tapping buttons in response to letters and shapes that flashed across my computer screen. For 12 weeks before the Ottawa Marathon back in 2013, I spent as much as 90 minutes at a stretch alone in my room, testing out a protocol for brain-endurance training. By race day, I no longer cared whether BET worked. I just knew that I never wanted to experience that kind of mental fatigue again.
The theory behind that cognitive torment seemed reasonable enough at the time: just as repeated physical exertion forced my muscles to adapt, routine bouts of mental taxation would push my brain to get better at resisting weariness when exhaustion loomed, helping me run a faster marathon. But initial incarnations of BET were somewhere between impractical and intolerable, and the approach didn’t get much traction in the sports world. “If I do physical training 15 hours a week, I can’t add another five hours of cognitive work,” says Walter Staiano, a sports neurophysiologist at the University of Valencia in Spain and one of the technique’s pioneers. “Because then I will die.” He’s exaggerating, but only just.
Six years later, BET is back in app form, with revised protocols that allow the training to be better integrated into an athlete’s routine. (The workouts require as little as 20 minutes per day to complete.) First there’s Soma NPT, developed by Staiano and a company in Switzerland called Sswitch. A $20 monthly subscription puts 45 cognitive-training tasks on your iOS phone or tablet and provides sophisticated analytics to guide your progress. Adoption has been swift: teams in the NBA, the German Football Federation, and the Canadian Football League, as well as professional golfers, Formula One drivers, and even Red Bull extreme athletes, are all giving it a shot.
Meanwhile, Samuele Marcora, the Italian researcher who initially proposed the idea of BET and, together with Staiano, developed the first protocols, is working with the British Ministry of Defence to develop an app that can be used during physical exercise, responding to audio cues in your earbuds. And a startup called Rewire Fitness is working on an approach that incorporates response buttons into an indoor bike trainer.
All the hype is admittedly a bit of a red flag. Everyone is selling neuroplasticity these days, Staiano observes with a mix of sarcasm and frustration. “You’re going to go exercise in the park? It’s neuro! You’re changing your brain!” For years, brain-game companies such as Cogmed and Lumosity that have made millions claiming to enhance cognitive function have been repeatedly undercut by research finding that they provide no significant benefit. Yet early results on the potential physical gains of brain work have been almost comically encouraging. In one study, Staiano and Marcora found that subjects improved their cycling times by 126 percent after 12 weeks of combined physical and cognitive training. (The control group, which did only physical training, improved 42 percent.) A research group at the University of Birmingham in England indicated similar results in a preliminary conference presentation.
While initial research in BET was oriented toward endurance sports, the keenest interest of late is in sports involving more complex, tactical thinking, where a split-second lapse in judgment by a fatigued athlete can mean defeat. This spring, at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting, Staiano presented results from a study involving a third-division soccer team in Italy whose players showed improvement in agility and decision-making after four weeks of BET. Similarly, Jami Tikkanen, a fitness coach whose athletes include two-time CrossFit world champion Annie Thorisdottir, began using the Soma NPT app hoping to improve clients’ problem-solving during periods of stress and fatigue and to help them maintain focus and emotional control. “The athletes already have a high physical training load, and BET is an opportunity to improve these qualities without increasing the demands on the body,” he says.
Unlike my misadventures with Marcora and Staiano’s original BET regimen, newer protocols emphasize integrating physical and cognitive effort. According to Staiano, the best time for brain training is immediately after a sweaty workout, when you’re already experiencing some degree of mental fatigue. In contrast, he says, “If you wake up in the morning, you’re super fresh, you have a nice cup of coffee, and then you do 20 minutes of this, you’re not going to see any benefit.” For even more seamless integration, you can do a couple of minutes during recovery periods within an intense interval or circuit workout. That’s the approach Staiano introduced to badminton players when he worked with an elite sports institute in Denmark. One of the athletes went on to win a bronze medal at the Olympic Games.
Even if you’re willing to set aside skepticism about whether brain-endurance training really works, there’s still one lingering question: Is it worth the effort? That may depend on your current level of mental toughness. Even among elite athletes searching for the slightest edge, BET could prove to be a hard sell. Staiano figures he can get a fairly accurate sense of who stands to benefit the most simply by watching how athletes handle the app’s initial set of tasks. “I can tell you that there are guys who, after one minute, you can see their eyes crossing,” he says. Others go an hour without batting an eye, which suggests that they’re already pretty good at withstanding strain. Cruel experience tells me that I’m in the first camp. So I downloaded the app.