Inside the Brain of an Elite Athlete with Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Allison J. Brager is a neuroscientist for the Army. She has worked at the storied Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, DC. She and her team have leveraged sleep science discoveries to provide fatigue management solutions to the frontlines. She sits on fatigue management working groups for the Office of the Army Surgeon General, the United States government, and NATO. She is also under candidate selection for the Army Astronaut Program in order to do research on the International Space Station. This past March, she was deployed to New York City to co-lead the COVID-19 clinical testing laboratory of the field support hospital established at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Allison Brager is also an elite athlete and CrossFit “OG,” dating back to 2011. She made the 2013 and 2015 CrossFit Games as a team member of Terminus Strength & Conditioning (formerly CrossFit Terminus) and competed as an individual in the 2012 and 2014 Southeast CrossFit Regionals. At present, she is an athlete of the Army Warrior Fitness Team and serves as the battalion’s Director of human performance and outreach education. Her popular science book, Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which she started writing after the 2013 CrossFit Games and had it published right before the 2015 CrossFit Games, bridges her own athletic anecdotes with the latest neuroscience and “biohacks” of elite performance.

In this interview, we discuss her book Meathead and just what separates the brain of an elite athlete from an amateur. Enter the giveaway below to win a signed copy of Meathead.

Cover of the book Meathead by Allison Brager, which explores the brain of an elite athlete

Greg: You have a fascinating background. You’re an elite athlete, a scientist and a soldier. How did you get started on all those paths?

Allison: Honestly, I was an athlete my entire life. And like any athlete, I tried to use whatever science and technology was available at hand to get ahead. I think I got a taste for that early on in life. Where I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, is a very well known-community for breeding professional football players and boxers. In my high school, out of a graduating class of 500, there were three kids who would go on and play in the NFL, which is unheard of. And I think it’s a product of growing up with boys—my brother, plus all the neighborhood kids were boys. Plus, our coaches in high school took a very evidence-based approach towards training and were keeping up as the strength and conditioning field was evolving.

When it came to what I wanted to do for a career, I was always intrigued by the scientific method. I was a junior when 9/11 happened. I did have kids from my graduating class who went on to join the Army and went to war. And at that time, I was actually getting recruited by West Point, but my parents wouldn’t let me go because of the war. So I thought my dream to serve in the military and support 9/11 died right then and there. But when I started working for the Army as a civilian about three years ago, the center director of military psychiatry pulled me aside and said, “Hey, I think you’d make a really great officer.” And I was like, “Well, why not?” So that’s how I ended up joining the Army at thirty-two.

Greg: So a rather unconventional path.

Allison: Yes. And it’s just lucky. By that point, I already realized I was never going to make it in academia. Before I joined the Army, I was a research professor at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. I was very good at getting grants, but I hated that my entire day was around science and how everything I was doing was going to shape my next big grant. Because if you really want to be successful as an academic scientist, you always have to be thinking of what to do next to continue supporting your line of research. Even at thirty-two, even though I was very successful, I was already getting burned out and I needed to switch careers.

Greg: I know you were a track athlete. I think you were a gymnast too, right?

Allison: Yes. I did dance and gymnastics pretty much the first eighteen years of my life. My mom enrolled me in gymnastics at three. But dance and gymnastics weren’t ever associated with the high school or middle school curriculum. So I did want to do a varsity sport for the school. Track seemed like a natural transition because so many of the field events in track mimic gymnastics. I’ve always specialized in long jump and hurdles. I actually didn’t start pole vaulting until I was a junior, because that was the first year ever that girls were allowed to pole vault in the state of Ohio. But that was easy enough to learn because I had been a gymnast for so long.

Greg: And then you made it to the CrossFit Games. How did you get started in CrossFit?

Allison: I did. When I was in graduate school, I still had this idea that I could make the Olympic team in pole vault. But after my first year of grad school, that dream kind of died because I wanted to be a successful scientist and I knew something was going to have to give. So I found CrossFit because I was getting kicked out of the rec center all the time for trying to do Olympic lifting or plyometrics. Any type of training that we used to do in track and field in college, apparently, I wasn’t allowed to do in the rec center.

So I had this friend from high school, Dan Bailey, who went on to be an eight-time CrossFit Games athlete. He started CrossFit in late 2010.I was talking to him and, a few months later, I started CrossFit. It really just filled the competitive void for me because my favorite part of track and field in college was the camaraderie we built in the weight room. And CrossFit made me feel like that almost instantly. Even though I’m now an older athlete, I can still push myself harder and harder every day. It never gets easy. In fact, the better you are at CrossFit, the harder it becomes and the more painful it is. I love that. Just pushing into these new physiological realms of what we call like homeostasis and allostasis, I love it.

Greg: It’s easy to see how your book Meathead came about by combining your interests as an athlete and a scientist. But was there a a specific incident that inspired you to write the book?

Dr. Allison Brager
Dr. Allison Brager

Allison: Yeah, actually it was going to the CrossFit Games the first time in 2013. I had always had this idea to write about this topic, and it’s mainly from being an athlete at an Ivy League university. One of the things that was very frustrating to deal with—not just for me, but for a lot of my classmates at Brown and friends of mine at Princeton, Yale and Dartmouth—is that there’s always this stigma against us. When you think of the Ivy League schools, you think of the top-notch kids in terms of scholastics. Well, the Ivy League schools also compete in Division I athletics, so at the highest level, and they do have a history of sending athletes to the NCAA championships.

So if you think about that, you kind of have to lower the academic standards for admission if you want to have good Division I-level scholar-athletes. There was always this stigma against us that we didn’t deserve to be there because we got in because we were good at sports. But at the same time, I started noticing my athlete friends went on to get professional degrees after college and went on to better themselves personally and professionally, whereas the non-athletes became stagnant and rode the coattails of the fact they went to an Ivy League school.

Then I started teaching a neuroscience course at Morehouse School of Medicine. And I thought, writing this book is the perfect application to take what I teach in the classroom to medical students and upperclassmen at Morehouse and apply it to this thesis that training builds neuroplasticity, enhances neural connectivity, and influences all the downstream effects that shape an elite athlete, like how the brain differs during competition versus training. But it was really going to the Games in 2013 that made me think I had to capitalize on those fifteen minutes of fame because it might not ever happen again. I was doing my fellowship at the time and I was seeing somebody in Savannah, Georgia, which was like four-and-a-half hours away from where I was in Atlanta. So I would use the Greyhound bus ride to write. And I was able to finish a draft within a year-and-a-half and I got it published right before I went back to the Games in 2015.

Greg: I’m guessing you had a pretty good idea of a lot of topics you wanted to cover before you started writing. Was there anything in your research that surprised you as you were going along?

Allison: Yeah! You know, it was really the idea that the neuroplasticity which develops and evolves over time separates an elite athlete from an amateur athlete. I never discounted Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, but I thought that rule just applied to strengthening the motor connections between the cerebellum, spinal cord and muscles. I was really surprised to learn that the changes that separate an elite athlete from an amateur athlete also extend into the frontal and cortical areas of the brain and that there are actual changes and glucose uptake and neuronal recruitment and areas of connectivity between the cortices to create overall efficiency in an elite athlete versus an amateur.

Greg: Can you break that down a little bit more? Let’s say you’re training for a 400-meter race. What what’s going on in your brain in response to specific workouts or specific training protocols?

Allison: One of the things that develops over time is your ability to effectively recruit the attentional and the somatosensory areas of the brain. When it comes to the act of running, you have to activate the somatosensory system because your brain has to pay attention to your feet hitting the ground, the position of your body as you’re rounding the curves, the length of your stride so you don’t rip a hamstring or something like that. But in addition to that, you also have to have the situational awareness with the front part of the brain in order to see where your competitors are on either side, or if you’re doing a track workout alone, to provide that motivating piece or internal timing mechanism to make sure that you’re on pace for your target and time.

It’s less concentration for the professional or elite athlete, but for a huge amount of additional output.

Greg: Do all those adaptations in your brain translate to areas that are not directly related to a sport?

Allison: In general, if you’re doing some higher-level complex task, those areas of your brain are going to be activated. A colleague of mine at Walter Reed looked at the brain of a professional jazz musician under neuroimaging and compared that brain to a high schooler who was just learning piano. There were identifiable changes in terms of the amount of actual recruitment going on within the somatosensory area alone and the frontal cortex area alone, with there being enhanced connectivity between the two. It would be the same in an athlete. If you take the brain of an elite athlete versus a high school athlete, they look very different under parameters of neuroimaging.

Greg: In this comparison between the professional jazz musician and the high school piano player, is it the case that the same areas are activated in both but the professional has greater activation?

Allison: Yeah. It takes less effort to activate more. It’s less concentration for the professional, but for a huge amount of additional output. So it’s more about efficiency, less so activation.

Greg: So for a professional jazz player, playing a really complex piece would be second nature, but a high schooler would have to concentrate on each individual note in a relatively simple piece.

Allison: Exactly. What they usually say is the high schooler is activating these frontal cortical areas of attention and cognitive processing, whereas the professional is working from the default mode brain network. There’s this built-in network after you do something so many times, and it allows you to switch over to the default signal processing within the brain.

Greg: Let’s say you’re performing a complex task, whether that’s playing a jazz piece or doing a pole vault, and you’re developing all these connections in your brain. Does that activity prime your brain to perform other complex tasks? I realize it wouldn’t make you a math genius, but does it prime your brain to start building connections when you’re solving an algebraic equation?

Allison: Anecdotally, yes, and this is sort of the underlying thesis of my book. The reason I say that is because, I did look at very high-level athletes after they retired who didn’t have some sort of psychological burden from not playing sports anymore. A lot of them go on to be extremely successful in some other profession. We can even look at college athletes. There are so many Heisman Trophy winners who have gone on to be phenomenal scientists or doctors. So I do think there are carryover effects because of an athlete’s ability to recruit and activate those brain centers.

Man wearing half of a football uniform and half of a doctor's coat

Greg: What are some additional differences between the brain and nervous system of an elite athlete and an amateur?

Allison: A good example would be emotional processing. I document this in the book, too. There’s something about the ability to stay calm under extreme pressure and stress. You have these two systems in the brain: the limbic system, which regulates emotion, and then deep in the brain, the hypothalamus. Those pathways help control the stress response. Those are two pathways that I think are better primed and further refined through sport in athletes and even in elite soldiers. If you look at green berets, for example, they thrive under conditions of stress where they find it calming more than stressful. And that response is something that becomes trained over time when you compete.

And then the last thing is motivation. There’s a motivational piece in terms of enhancement of dopamine and the pain and pleasure pathways of the brain. You don’t get to where you are in sport without enduring a level of pain, whether it’s physiological on a daily basis from doing something like lactic acid threshold workouts, or from actually being injured. There are so many elite athletes, myself included, who have competed most of their careers injured, but they still do it.

Greg: It sounds like a lot of these benefits can be developed through training. Is there any part of it that is genetic?

Allison: Oh, absolutely. My background is actually in behavioral genetics. I spent about ten years taking mouse models and looking at specific genes that regulate the timing of sleep and the quality of sleep. And we find that manipulation of those genes leads to different sleep behaviors. We’ve done similar genotyping studies in humans. There’s this great book on the subject called The Sports Gene by David Epstein, another former Ivy League track and field athlete. When you’re talking about the top 1% of athletes, it has to be genetic. At that level, there’s something different about their physiology that couples with intense training to just make them unstoppable.

But it’s a question of ethics, right? Because the general public doesn’t want to hear that we’re using select genetic traits to create a group of bad-ass humans. But that’s kind of what we’re trying to do with some of the research portfolios in the Army. If you want to create this team of bad-ass soldiers for this specific outcome, whether it’s psychological or physiological resiliency or their ability to handle heat, stress, cold, sleep deprivation, etc., you have to look at the level of the genes. Because that’s where you’re going to find the top 1%. And again, I know it’s not a popular opinion. But as somebody who studies behavioral genetics, I can tell you genetics is the blueprint, and everything else just further augments what you’re trying to build.

Greg: That certainly make sense for a military organization selecting soldiers, and I’m sure there would be NBA or NFL teams that would like to do the same if there weren’t concerns about privacy.

Allison: Yes. It’s worth reading The Sports Gene. It’s super interesting. One of the things I learned is, yes, we know some of the best sprinters on earth come from Jamaica. A lot of people thought it was because Jamaica treats track and field like we treat the NFL. But it turns out it’s more than that, that there is actually a very specific tribe that the fastest humans in the world come from. They all possess this polymorphism and this one gene—I think it’s called STN8α. And this gene leads to more fast-twitch muscle fibers and quicker turnover. There was another study of Norwegian cross-country skiers which showed it’s not just the conditions that they train on, but they actually have an enhanced ability to bind oxygen to hemoglobin and enhance their aerobic and cardiovascular throughput because of that

When you’re talking about the top 1% of athletes, it has to be genetic.

Greg: There’s also a section in your book on performance-enhancing substances. What are some of the most effective performance enhancing substances, both legal and illegal?

Allison: They’re obviously illegal and there’s short-term gain and long-term cost, but steroids are effective because they enhance the recovery process. And if you are enhancing the recovery process, you can do more work and not break down your muscle and other systems as much.

However, there’s actually something we’ve been working with now in the DOD channels that is a simple manipulation of basic biochemical processes. There’s this sodium bicarbonate lotion that’s been used a lot by professional athletes and elite soldiers in the military. And it’s basically just saturating the system with sodium bicarbonate, which makes the physiological environment more alkaline. So it puts your body above a 7.4 pH. The benefit is that when you train, you’re able to go deeper into your lactic acid tank and work harder and have more power throughput before your body’s pH goes under 7.4 and you redline and have to stop.

Actually, when I was in New York to help with the COVID-19 pandemic response, we were using the sodium bicarbonate lotion for general fatigue management, because fatigue is more than just psychological. It is physiological. If you don’t have the basic cellular energy substrates from ATP to glucose to creatine, which sodium bicarbonate is very much involved with, then you’re going to experience fatigue.

Greg: How much sodium bicarbonate would you have to take to get a response?

Allison: I’ll have to get back to you on that. I don’t know the dosing off the top of my head. It’s interesting you asked, because that’s how this lotion came about. In the 1980s, cyclists used to take sodium bicarbonate tablets or basically drink baking soda water. But it gave them diarrhea and abdominal cramping. So a supplement company took that principle and through a DOD funding mechanism, they were able to package it into a lotion to bypass these severe gastrointestinal effects.

Some of the other performance-enhancing substances that I’ve gotten onto recently are creatine and nootropics. Creatine had this bad reputation among professional athletes because a lot of people have taken creatine and gone into cardiac arrest. But usually that’s because they’ve already been in a state of dehydration to begin with, and that was the root cause, not the creatine. But creatine is a basic cellular energy substrate. So if you load up on creatine, that’s not only going to better your physical performance in terms of leading to more output and power, but it also could benefit your cognitive performance. I have academic colleagues who have done studies of people under conditions of sleep deprivation or high stress, where they’re rapidly depleting and utilizing their energy stores. But those who supplemented with creatine had fewer mental lapses and fewer mental errors under conditions of high stress and sleep deprivation compared to those who didn’t supplement.

Greg: Were there some substances you researched that were over-hyped and weren’t actually delivering benefits?

Allison: I’m certainly not an immunologist, but there’s a lot of hype around vitamin B and vitamin C. Even outside of the immune system, some people believe those are energy recruitment and energy activating supplements. But biochemically, it doesn’t make sense to me. If you think about like the most basic biochemical processes from glycolysis to the Krebs cycle to oxidative respiration, vitamin B and C don’t fit in into any of that. So I’ve always felt like those two were over-hyped. That’s especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, because vitamin D has way more of a direct modulatory effect on the immune system than either of those two vitamins.

For more on Allison’s work and the brain of an elite athlete, check out her book Meathead and follow her on Instagram. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.

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