Everyone is looking for an advantage. That's why we freeze ourselves in cryotanks, sweat buckets in infrared saunas and shake our muscles with e-stim. Now athletes are turning to neurotechnology (high-tech exercise equipment) devices that are used to train the brain to get ahead of the competition – even if that competition simply beats last month's PR. Perhaps the best known (and certainly the most expensive) example is this FitLight trainer (Starting at $ 1,499; fitlighttraining.com), a system of lights that you mount on the wall or floor and that flash according to a training program. You have a set amount of time to turn them off using your hands, feet, head, or a device. The lights record reaction time and help athletes who need lightning-fast foot and hand-eye coordination (think soccer and basketball players) improve their speed and agility.
This improvement is not due to simple repetitions. This is due to changes in the brain that neuroscientists refer to as "plasticity". That said, it's malleable with the right tools. Imagine a complicated city street map: the more you cover a given route, the easier it will be for you to remember it. "It's the same in your brain," says Louisa Nicola, neuroscientist and brain performance trainer at Neuroathletics. "The more you do an activity, the more it becomes second nature." With the FitLight Trainer you can build up more neural pathways – and use them faster and more frequently.
Another example in this new area of cutting edge exercise equipment is this Halo Sport 2 ($ 399; haloneuro.com) that look like regular noise-canceling headphones, but are actually a neuro-priming tool. There is a set of silicone teeth on the band. Don't freak out, but these are electrodes that zap your brain's motor cortex – the region that controls voluntary movement – with a small amount of electrical current. This brings the neuroplasticity mentioned above into full swing, which improves the brain's ability to learn and adapt to exercise.
Wear it 20 minutes before your warm-up and then during a 60-minute workout while your brain is in this accelerated learning state to help you master a certain skill faster. The Halo Sport 2 works best when you perform intense, repetitive motions and focus on correct form. This is why CrossFitters and Triathletes attribute it an advantage.
"Do you know how they say it takes 10,000 hours to perfect an activity?" Ask Nicola. "With the Halo Sport 2, you only have to complete 2,000 hours." It activates your neurons so they fire more frequently. The more neurons fire at the same time, the stronger the connection between the brain and muscles becomes.
The matrix-like Senaptec strobe ($ 299; senaptec.com) Goggles can improve an athlete's awareness, awareness, reaction time, and motor skills by limiting sensory information. Put on the glasses, then do your sport-specific exercises. The liquid crystal lenses are divided into quadrants that can change from transparent to opaque in nanoseconds. You can activate certain sections or customize the lightning pattern yourself through the app or the goggles.
The reduced information forces different parts of the brain to process what's going on around you more efficiently – for example, noticing where your competition is on a soccer field or an ice rink – so that you can react more quickly.
Traditional workouts don't stimulate the nervous system as much, Nicola explains, but that stimulation is key if you want your workouts to reflect real-world competitive situations. An NBA player doesn't just dribble a ball for 48 minutes, he manages fatigue, audio distractions, and visual cues. The more pressure your brain is used to, the better off you will be in high stress situations.
In the same way that hitting a Fitbit doesn't automatically make you fitter, a neurotechnology device won't make you a super athlete overnight. "It's really difficult to maintain consistency to change your brain over time," says Nicola. If you haven't completely set your exercise, diet, and sleep routine, these high-tech tools may have a bigger impact on your wallet than on your performance. But if you think you're ready to take the leap from weekend warrior to elite athlete, maybe it is time to hack your brain.
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