Brain Body Connection

Sports Phychology

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The Brain-Body Link and Adaptation to Training

Because most exercise physiologists focus our training on muscle and systemic physiology, we tend to treat the brain as a mysterious black box, but that is changing. I for one, am recognizing that I must learn more about the impact of exercise on the brain, and the impact of brain activity of physical function. The MIND-BODY link is becoming more than just mysticism.

Here I will try to present some material that comes from the 25 years of work by Dr. Heinz Liesen. He served as National Team Doctor for the German soccer (football) team that reached the WorldCup final in 86 and 90, despite only modest talent. He also served as team doctor for the very successful national Field Hockey team and the Nordic Combined (cross country skiing plus ski jumping) team. Today his focus has returned to preventive medicine. The knowledge that he derives from folllowing specific athletes (and non-athlete exercisers) for several years, with repeated measures of cellular immune reactivity, training pattern, performance, and even regionalized brain wave activity, is unique in the field. Some of the material also is based on a growing body of research generated in the United States and in Germany.

The Brain is the Center of Sports Performance

After all this talk about heart and muscles, this must sound pretty crazy. It is true though. The brain both initiates all of our voluntary movements and reacts to the stress that exercise creates. And, to some extent, stress seems to be a universal quality. The brain responds to the stress of job, driving, training, competition. The measurable impact of this stress is revealed in several ways:

  • Resting Catecholamine Levels. Appropriate training tends to produce parasympathetic (rest and recover) dominance in the endurance trained athlete. However, if training stress becomes too severe, sympathetic (fight or flight) hormone levels remain elevated even at rest, an indication of incomplete recovery. An outward manifestation of this change is an elevated resting heart rate, although this may not be as sensitive as other measures. Another characteristic of the heart rhythm at rest is a certain degree of irregularity. There is considerable beat to beat variability in the heart rate, measured as minute changes in the interval between successive beats. This variability actually decreases in anticipation of a mental task, as sympathetic stimulation increases.
  • Testosterone/Cortisol Ratio Testosterone is an anabolic hormone that plays a role in regeneration and repair of muscle and tissue. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that stimulates tissue breakdown. For example, cortisol levels are elevated in starvation situations when muscle tissue is catabolized for energy. Testosterone levels tend to be higher in individuals with a high capacity for hard training and recovery (and in those who receive it via a needle). Testosterone levels are naturally lower in women compared to men (about 10x lower). The testosterone/cortisol ratio has been shown in some (but not all) studies to be indicative of overtraining and staleness in elite athletes.
  • Immune System Function The immune system is a simple term for an intrinsic, adaptable cellular system that responds to invading foreign substances and eliminates them, or minimizes their capacity to replicate. The immune sytem is modifiable both in the rapidity and magnitude of its response to a foreign invader. Exercise creates both acute and chronic changes in immune system function. Acute exercise has been shown to cause a transient depression of certain components of the immune system, creating a window of susceptibility to infection of several hours after an exercise bout. The stress of chronic exercise has a biphasiceffect on immune function. This can be demonstrated several ways. First, the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) decreases with moderate exercise, but increases in hard training athletes (J-shaped Incidence curve). Second, the magnitude of immune response to an applied antigen is decreased in overstressed athletes. Diagnostic kits are available which allow the controlled application of 7 allergens to the skin of the forearm. The total area of resulting skin reactions represent a quantitiative measure of the vigor of the immune system (within a given individual). This measurement is routinely made by many national teams in Germany and Scandinavia.

Perhaps the most interesting information I can give you is also the most difficult for me to understand with my miniscule knowledge of brain chemistry. It appears that the brain interacts with the immune system and modulates immune responses. This has been poignantly demonstrated by Dr. Liesen. By comparing blood withdrawn immediately before, and 1 hour after an unanticipated, but stress inducing medical diagnosis, he observed dramatic changes in the antigenic responsiveness of blood leukocytes. This brain modulation of immune function appears to involve the release of specific immuno modulating chemicals by the brain in response to emotional stimuli.

  • Psychological Profiles- Several survey instruments have been developed which appear to be sensitive to emotional changes that accompany or precede the physiological and performance changes associated with an overtrained state. The instruments ask questions about current mood, anxiety, sleep quality, desire to train, etc.

The Big Picture

Below is a model presented by Dr. Liesen based on his experience and research, depicting the potential for both positive and negative effects of physical exercise on health and peak performance.

In today’s world of elite sport, the real limitation to continued improvement has moved from the quantity of training to the capacity of the mind and body for restititution. Many elite athletes are training 50 weeks per year, sometimes 3-4 hours/day. When this extreme physical stress is combined with the stress of more frequent competitions to satisfy sponsors, media pressure and a tendency to lose time or interest in mentally diverting creative activities, the results are often disastrous. What we often see if we observe closely, is the sudden appearance of extremely talented performers, followed one or two years later by a decline in their performance or a complete dissappearance from the scene. Behind these early burnouts is usually a coach or performance team that is pushing too hard.

The success of the teams and individual athletes managed by Dr. Liesen was not due to an intensificationof their training. On the contrary, more careful application of low intensity, “recuperative” training and even, complete rest days was the key. Keep in mind that complete days without training for world class endurance athletes are bitter pills to swallow. Here in Norway, World and Olympic Champion cross country skier, Bjorn Dahlie was recently quoted in the paper, ” A day without training is a day without value”. Three weeks later he had to withdraw from the National championships due to illness. Rest is important

How we rest is also important. For example, Dr. Liesen observed that the football (soccer) players tended to do nothing more than lie around and watch TV between training sessions, their mind assuming an almost vegetative state. To increase their mental creativity, he took his team members to museums, helped them study new languages, started them doing hand-crafts, all during the heat of training and World Cup competition. The results were outstanding. Modestly talented German teams advanced to the World Cup final in 1986 and 1990 (running out of talent both times in the Final). They were successful in large measure because they stayed healthy and strong throughout the tournament.

When you look at the model above, you see both exercise level and creative mental activity as potential modulators of health and performance. When we build a training program, we have to consider the brain as well as the body.

The typical masters athlete does not train at the same volume as elite athletes. So, you might think, “overtraining is not an issue for me since I only train 12 hours per week.” But, do you have a career, children, an hour of rush hour traffic each day. Has every training session become intense? Does each training ride/run become a race? Have other hobbies dissappeared from your routine. When you aren’t training are you thinking about training? If you answered yes to most of these questions, you have to reevaluate your training program and your approach to exercise.

The Long Haul

In college and at the world class level, the clock is always ticking. Athletes feel pressure to reach their peak “this year”. In many cases, this leads to yearly cycles that do not consider the ongoing development of the athlete “the next year”. As a masters athlete, remember that you are in this game for the long haul. Training is a long process of learning and physical and technical growth. Medals go to those who combine talent with patience, and intensity with intelligence. Ultimately, no matter what your level of performance, the satisfaction of athleticism is sweetest when it enhances your life, not just your VO2 max!


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