Train Your Brain to Unlock Your Next PR
Your brain plays a key role in optimizing your performance. Here’s how.
By Vernon Williams, MD•
When you’re after a PR, it’s natural to focus on making your muscles and heart stronger. As a sports neurologist, I encourage my patients and active people, in general, to also train another important organ: the brain.
You might be thinking sports neurology is only for pro athletes—Peloton Members like Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix. The world’s fastest man and the most decorated Olympic track athlete in the U.S., respectively, had to get their brains in the game to win big. But the truth is, sports neurology is for everyone, whether you’re new to exercise or trying to climb the Leaderboard.
Sports neurology is an emerging area of science, which means we still don’t know everything about how the brain works (just yet). But I can tell you that your brain really does hold the power to improve your performance both mentally and physically. It can make you better and that can translate into more PRs, more milestones and more challenges conquered.
Here’s where being “neurologically fit” comes into play. Optimizing your neurological function enhances just about every activity you participate in. Being neurologically fit means better reaction times, more focus, easier decision-making and the ability to stay cool under pressure, like when things start to heat up during a workout or competition.
So whether you’re looking to reach a higher output on the Peloton Bike, log your fastest mile or hit a major strength training achievement, these three brain-boosting strategies can help you get to the next level.
1. Treat Sleep as an Important Part of Your Health and Fitness Routine
The body and brain don’t simply rest during sleep. Sleep is actually a very active process, and the more we look at it, the more we learn about how it helps us maintain neurologic health over the course of our lives. Sleep also impacts brain function the next day.
Most people know they should sleep between seven to nine hours a night. But what they don’t know is if you get less than six hours of sleep, it significantly affects your reaction time, speed of mental processing and memory. It also influences how your body functions physically, including your strength and endurance.
One study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that judo athletes were weaker after just one night of not getting enough sleep. In contrast, a trial featuring college tennis players, published in Physiology & Behavior, found that getting an additional two hours of sleep per night increased the players’ accuracy by more than 5 percent. So a solid night’s sleep really does prime your brain and body for tomorrow’s training session.
The most important takeaway here is to recognize that your sleep habits are as essential as your workouts. Value and protect your sleep. Make that mindset shift, and you’ve already laid the foundation for neurological fitness.
2. Take 10 Minutes to Meditate
During high-stress moments in your workout, you might notice your heart racing and a sudden hit of adrenaline. That likely is your stress response kicking in. Also known as “fight or flight” mode, this response isn’t a bad thing. But in order to perform your best, you need to be able to manage this response so that it doesn’t take over, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and unable to effectively push yourself during that sprint, climb or max effort.
I always give people the visual of Tiger Woods when he hits a monster drive down the middle of the fairway. Afterward, he walks super slowly to the next ball. If you watch him closely, you can see him breathing deeply to calm himself while he does this. By the time he gets to his next ball, he’s ready to perform again.
My point here is when you’re in the middle of a tough workout, take a moment to pause, practice deep breaths and work through in your mind how you’re going to handle the next big effort. It could be the difference between PRing and not. One of the best ways to learn how to take a pause is through meditation and mindfulness training.
As you meditate and focus on your breathing, your stress response decreases and your “rest and digest” response increases. A 2021 review published in Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology found that meditation can help reduce cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. When there’s a surge of cortisol in your system, it can be hard to stay focused during a challenging time. Very high levels of cortisol can even mess with your body’s ability to build muscle and recover from training, so keeping it under control is critical for performance in the long run.
That’s why I recommend incorporating meditation into your daily routine. Consistency is more important than duration when it comes to meditation. Aim for 10 minutes a day. (Choose from nearly a thousand 10-minute guided meditation sessions on the Peloton App to help you get started.)
3. Add HIIT Into Your Workout Schedule
A 2021 meta-analysis published in Nature reports that HIIT increases the production of an important brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF seems to play a variety of roles, including ones related to mood and cognitive performance. Unfortunately, production of the chemical declines as we age. However, BDNF tends to be higher in people with healthy, well-functioning brains. The better your brain functions, the more likely you are to be at your optimal performance level.
Doing HIIT workouts two to three times a week (good health and your doctor’s sign-off permitting) is enough to help you reap these benefits. It doesn’t matter whether you do them on the Peloton Bike, Peloton Tread or mat. However, if you tend to think more is better, this is one case where it’s not true. Your body and brain need recovery time, and HIIT is going to be more demanding than moderate-level training. In fact, there’s evidence that extreme exertion can have a negative short-term effect on your memory and executive function. To make these workouts worthwhile for optimal brain function, don’t overdo it.
Added bonus: Simply being aware of these brain benefits can help you get even more out of your HIIT workouts. The placebo effect gets a bad rap, but it’s a real physiological response: Believing you’re getting a certain perk from your workouts can make it feel more real. You’re not fooling yourself; you’re simply augmenting your benefits through awareness. So as you do your HIIT workouts, consider telling yourself: “I'm giving myself some extra BDNF right now.”
Vernon Williams, MD is a board-certified clinical neurologist specializing in sports neurology and pain medicine; he is also a paid consultant member of the Peloton Health & Wellness Advisory Council. Dr. Williams is the founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, CA. He passionately advocates for optimization of neurological health across the lifespan for his patients and peak performance clients. Follow him on Twitter.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.