By Coach John Hughes
Last week’s newsletter included an interview with Mark Mastalir: Can This Set of Headphones Make You a Faster Cyclist? Interview with Halo Neuroscience. Halo sells headphones that are purported to increase athletic performance and improve endurance.
I’m generally skeptical of products that are alleged to improve performance, but in this case I was intrigued. Your quadriceps muscle is composed of many motor units, each of which is controlled by a different nerve. Each motor unit is burning a tiny bit of energy. When your brain tells these motor units to contract they don’t all naturally contract simultaneously. If you can get the motor units to fire simultaneously you get more power without expending more energy. This is like dialing in the timing of your car. If the Halo device improves the firing pattern of these motor units then it could improve cycling.
What scientific research supports the claim?
The Halo website includes a number of white papers by the Halo Neuroscience Sports Research Lab. Because this lab is tied to Halo its papers may not be objective.
Halo also cites a number research papers done by independent labs, which have been reviewed by other knowledgeable scientists and published in scientific journals. If a research paper has been peer-reviewed then the abstract is in PubMed.gov.
The most interesting paper is Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation and Sports Performance (tDCS & SP) The paper is a review of a number of research studies. Here are two examples, both of which have abstracts in PubMed:
- One study of 10 trained cyclists age 24 – 32 years with 10-11 training years. After 20 minutes of brain stimulation the cyclists improved their peak power by ~4%. The results are apparently due in part to decreased perception of effort.
- A different study tested the perceptions of effort and performance of 12 healthy males between 18 and 40 years of age. The study found that although perceived exertion was less, “active HD-tDCS did not significantly elevate maximal force production or muscular endurance.”
The tDCS & SP paper concludes, “While tDCS can broadly modulate brain activity, and is considered safe within accepted boundaries, it remains to be conclusively determined whether it can improve sports performance at an elite level.”
In the RBR interview Mark Mastalir, Halo Neuroscience’s chief marketing officer, said, “We tested the US Ski team in a placebo controlled study as they prepared for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Ski jumpers improved their propulsion force by 13% over a control group in a 2-week period.”
Scientific American published an article Does Zapping Your Brain Increase Performance? The article is subtitled “The evidence for neurostimulation is decidedly mixed.” The article says this about Halo and the ski jumping case, “The firm reports on its own unpublished “preliminary results” with elite Olympic ski jumpers showing a 31 percent improvement in their propulsion force, with significantly less wobble when airborne. (emphasis added) Even if a far more modest result than 31 percent turned out to be true, these sorts of findings could mean that tDCS is set to become a significant performance enhancer in the sporting world. Will its use in competitive settings be considered cheating?” The phrase “unpublished preliminary results” means that the research has not been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.
Does it apply to you?
Study A reported on ten age 24 – 32 cyclists who had been training for 10 to 11 training years. Are you in this age bracket? Study B tested 10 healthy males aged 18 – 40 years. Are you male or female? Ski jumping depends on one explosive contraction of the leg muscles. Is this how you ride?
For more see my column on The Importance of Evaluating Products & Techniques for Yourself.