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Suffering and Sport: TDCS, Perception of Effort, Controlling Emotions, The Hour Record for Cycling, More

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Oh boy! More stuff to contemplate on Performance Enhancement and Perceived Effort.

This all started with a BBC article, discussed and listed below, which seemed a bit disjointed, like this article will. First, let's cover a simple electrical device that may help reduce the mental blocks (some people might consider these safeguards) to exercising to physical exhaustion.

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS)

If you've ever used a TENS machine for pain, you know that Transcutaneous Electro Neural Stimulation can be useful. It really helped me stay off of pain drugs when I had some back pain. Some of the other modes of the machine might be helpful as well for recovery exercise ("Russian mode"). Don't take my word for it: check out the reviews on Amazon. Certainly, some feel it does nothing. But there are enough who consider TENS transformative and essential to managing chronic pain, that I felt it was worth a try, and it helped me.

Now there is a very simple device that supposedly may help athletes be willing to endure more suffering! (A lot of pop songs are about this very subject.)

The new device and technique are called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, which...

...has the effect of reducing perception of effort, effectively expanding the limits of physical exhaustion.

It involves very low frequency electric currents being passed over the skull and is also employed in the treatment of depression, epilepsy, stroke, dementia and mental illness.

These devices range from DIY on YouTube to about $30 on eBay to clinical units costing hundreds of dollars, and results vary, of course. But some say it has a positive effect for them.

So, as expected, there's continuing research on how to push yourself beyond your self-perceived limits, closer to what scientists (or coaches!) calculate as your actual physical limits. Some of these techniques, which include TDCS, are:

Cognitive training involving intense, repetitive and dull mental exercise, TDCS, motivational self-talk and bombarding the senses with subliminal positive messages have all been found to boost the mind's ability to resist fatigue, in Marcora and Staiano's research.

Whatever the future of TCDS in sports, and whether it may be considered doping, it seems worth a bit of research, and if safe, giving it a try for addressing the wintertime blues, or to help you learn to play the wintertime blues better, or perhaps to reduce the perceived effort of achieving something, like making a great sandwich, even!


Studying the Mind as a Limiting Factor in Exercise to Exhaustion

The BBC article also linked to a video of Sam Marcora's presentation on his research, which I found well worth watching, and interesting. Some of the video addresses simple things athletes can do to improve performance, most of them not new, but an offhand comment about "NOT spending energy controlling emotions" was interesting.



Sam Marcora starts off explaining that he studies "the limits of endurance performance in humans" and asks "are we limited by our own muscles or our own mind."Endurance events he studies are "any whole-body physical task...lasting more than 75 seconds" where one is "trying to run or cycle at a speed your competitors can not keep."


While many athletes still think and talk about lactic acid being a limiting factor by itself, "lactic acid is not that important; there are even people who believe it is not fatiguing at all." There are instead a lot of other changes: "one of them for example is the depletion of glycogen, which is the main energy substrate for muscle contraction," also, for example, "when it's very hot, our brain becomes less able to activate the muscles." Regardless, "there is mounting evidence that the muscle is not the limiting factor."

In lab estimates, "immediately after exhaustion...with what was left in the muscles after exhaustion they could have kept going at a high intensity for another 7 to 8 minutes." The limit "seems to be the mind, specifically perception of effort." Other factors include "mental fatigue."


To address that, before events, "try to sleep well...and avoid...video games or other mentally fatiguing tasks," and during exercise, "use in a systematic way psychological skills such as motivational self-talk and goal-setting imagery." Athletes and coaches can also expand their testing beyond heart rate monitors during training, by also including surveys of training mood and stress/recovery questionnaires. He is working to develop "objective measures of mental fatigue such as electroencephelography."


He mentions caffeine and tyrosine (the latter of which is a precursor of a neurotransmitter dopamine), and Brain Endurance Training, combining "classical exercise training with a mentally fatiguing task on a computer...it makes people more resistant to mental fatigue and as a result improves their endurance performance." Briefly after this, Morcora mentions brain stimulation, one form of which is TCDS, as a then relatively new area of study.


General Cycling Pain and Endurance Quotations from Jens Voigt and Adam Hansen

Admittedly, the quotations from famous cyclists in the BBC article had not much to do with the research in this article, but we like to hear from overachievers, so the article includes some responses on what motivates or enables or complicates their endurance efforts. On the angry punishor side, longtime breakaway favorite Jens Voigt speaks:

"Now I am OK, but for some time I was actually happy to have the pain because I could release my demons in the right way," Jens Voigt says.

"Often people asked me what I would do without cycling, and I would say I'd be like the main character in Grand Theft Auto. Too much anger and too much energy.

We saw him suffer in many breakaways we knew would be broken ways. But it was clear he suffered and enjoyed the suffering, and he seems to be saying he enjoyed making others suffer to see if they could stay away and take a win or podium, or at least serve to launch someone else to that position.

Like so many sports figures, a parent held strong influence. Voigt's father solved the mind/body problem this way:

"My dad said, 'Son, the mind has to control the body, not the other way around.'

[Interestingly, Voigt made his attempt at the hour record "at the age of 42 in September 2014, before immediately retiring from the sport." So, why immediately before retiring?  Was he ever in on the biological passport? Didn't WIggins do similarly? I digress.]

Recalling his efforts in races:

"After you go through so much suffering and you finish with the first group, you are proud; your body flows with happy hormones....Like you've squeezed every bad chemical out of your body, you feel clean and whole.

In any case, to continue with his effort in the Hour Record attempt, Voigt seemed to break it down into 20 minute segments as so many of us do (though our segment sizes may differ).

As a counterpoint, the article quotes rider Adam Hansen, an extremely durable and consistent grand tour participant, who stays notably calm, but sifts through motivations on quitting or continuing. Sounds familiar:

"You bring up all the reasons in the world as to why you have to continue, while your brain is telling you all the reasons why you have to stop.

There are times on the road where I've had some these thoughts myself. I tend to do better either not knowing my progress other than heartrate (and sometimes, speed, if daylight is a factor); by counting down laps instead of up if it's on a loop; and during an endurance event, by thinking "Oh I could do [the distance that remains] any day no matter how crappy I felt." And once in a while, Moonstruck's "Snap out of it!" line comes to mind.

Regardless how it all goes, coaches and athletes will always look for that little (or huge) edge, and later on, much later, we may understand what happened in sports, say two or three years ago or more. I've thought about watching last year's Tours every year instead of this years, so I'd no the winners after the testing is mostly done. Mostly, I just find myself not watching as much, which maybe gets me out the door more to actually skate a few.


Cycling & suffering - a special relationship - BBC Sport - Cycling & suffering - a special relationship  BBC Sport

Three cyclists discuss their special relationship with suffering. And can science help expand the limits of exhaustion?

[Cycling & Cyclists]


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Pubmed TCDS Overview and References

Here's an article from Pubmed with many references and a general overview...


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The Psychobiological Model and Perceived Effort 2017 Marcora

Here's an updated presentation by Professor Marcora:

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