Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brain stimulation: does it enhance sports performance?


Brain stimulation has been introduced more than 100 years ago initially in animal studies and later in clinical studies involving humans. This method was initially designed to help patients with brain injuries but it is now being used in other areas too (for example in exercise physiology research & in skill acquisition studies).

What is brain stimulation?
Brain stimulation uses constant, low current delivered to the brain area of interest via surface electrodes. Research in healthy participants has shown that brain stimulation can improve cognitive performance on a variety of tasks depending on the area of stimulation.

Potential applications in sports
Based on the current evidence it seems that brain stimulation can be used to enhance exercise training-induced benefits and maximize sports performance.
Indeed, studies have shown that skill acquisition rate may improve with brain stimulation and this might have implications for training. If the players/athletes learn better and faster when brain stimulation is being used this will result in improved performance in the long term. Reis et al (2009) had their participants to perform a simple motor task on the computer while receiving transcranial direct current stimulation over the primary motor cortex (experimental condition) or without it. Measurements were performed before the experiment at 5 days of training and at 3 months post training. The results showed better performance for the experimental trial, even at 3 months post-training, compared to the control condition. 
Other studies have shown that time to fatigue and response time is improved immediately after stimulation and for the following 20-60 min. If this is true in real life situation, players/athletes might feel less tired towards the end of the game if they receive brain stimulation. Brain stimulation might also help the players/athletes to feel less tired the days between matches. However, it must be noted that this is only speculation and there is no scientific evidence in favor of this hypothesis.

Possible limitations
Studies with brain stimulation have been contacted in non-experts and we don’t know what would be the benefits in elite athletes.
Results so far are on simple motor tasks and we don’t know the response with more complex tasks as is the scenario in sports.

Health risks
As experts state some health risks may arise when brain stimulation is used outside safety parameters.

For further reading
Cogiamanian et al (2007). Improved isometric force endurance after transcranial direct current stimulation over the human motor cortical areas. Eur J Neurosci 26:242-249.
Jang et al (2009). The effect of transcranial direct current stimulation on the cortical activation by motor task in the human brain: an fMRI study. Neurosci  Lett 460:117-120.
Reis et al (2009). Noninvasive cortical stimulation enhances motor skill acquisition over multiple days through an effect on consolidation. PNAS 106:1590-1595.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Is altitude training appropriate for football players? New evidence


A nice study was published about two weeks ago by McLean and colleagues from Australia on 30 elite Australian Football players. Twenty one of them completed 19 days of living and training at moderate altitude (around 2130 m) whereas the remaining 9 served as the control group (sea level training). Time-trial running performance in 2000m and hemoglobin mass were assessed before, immediately after the intervention as well as 4 weeks after returning from altitude in both groups.

Main findings
  • Running performance improved in both conditions. However, the improvement in 2000 m performance was 1.5% greater after altitude training compared with sea level.
  • This beneficial effect was maintained after 4 weeks of altitude training cessation.
  • Hbmass increased by 2.8% with altitude training but returned to baseline values at 4 weeks after returning to sea level.

Conclusion & comments
As the authors suggest the maintenance of  running performance improvement at 4 weeks after returning from altitude suggests that altitude training may be beneficial to performance in team-sport athletes. It is worth noting, however, that no testing was conducted in the control group at that time. Hence, we don't know if the performance maintenace at 4 weeks postdescent was due to altitude training per se.
Finally, whether this benefit translates into improved match running performance in football (soccer) remains to be proven.

McLean, Buttifant, Gore, White, Liess and Kemp (2013). Physiological and performance responses to a preseason altitude-training in elite team-sport athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 8:391-399.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Going from good to great: lessons from business

by Jim Collins
Recently, I read the “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. Jim Collins is a former faculty member at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, who conducted the “Good to Great” study. In his study, he identified the companies that progressed from good to great and sustained those results for 15 years. He then compared these companies with a control group of companies which did not make the transition or were unable to sustain the great results for so long. Many of the findings of this study apply and/or may be useful in sports (team building, sports science and medical departments building etc.). For those who are interested in such issues, I have summarized the findings below:
Leadership style: These are the characteristics of the leaders (CEO) of the companies that made the leap from good to great:
  • They are results oriented while at the same time they are modest and shy.
  • They are determined to do whatever neede to achive the best results. On the other hand they are quit, calm, and friendly with the colleagues.
  • They set high goals and work hard and smart to achieve them. Ambitions are for the company not for themselves.
  • They look "in the mirror not out of the window". When something goes wrong they look in the mirror, when things go well they give credit to the team members.
  • They have the ability to "get the right people on the bus, the right peple in the right place and the wrong people off the bus".  Importantly, they get self-disciplines people on the bus. If you lead such a team, you spend little time trying to motivate people and hence focus on more important issues.
  • Leaders face the brutal facts, don’t cover them and never lose faith that they will succeed in the end.
  • They carefully plan their actions and insire others to do the same by asking simple questions:
                      -What is my passion? Let’s go for it!
                      -How can I make the difference?
  • Leaders preserve their personal and team's core values while they are ready to modify strategies to adapt to a changing environment.

Source: Jim Collins. Good to Great. HarperCollins Publishers Inc, New York, 2001