Sneakers member Susan Gordon hits the finish line. Photo: Lynn Thompson.

Is there something in the water, or is it the idyllic island setting off the coast of B.C.? Science, perhaps?

Salt Spring Island, located in the Strait of Georgia between mainland BC and Vancouver Island, is home to a group of senior athletes who call themselves ‘The Sneakers.’ They are redefining what it means to be active. Led by their coach, Susan Gordon, this small group of islanders have achieved noteworthy podium finishes in events worldwide. An accomplished age-group athlete herself, Susan’s competitive road-running trajectory was likely catapulted forward by a discovery from her younger brother Dr. Ronald Gordon.

Laced up and ready to run… Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, RVWithTito.com.

In the mid-1990s, Ronald was an early adopter of a new brain imaging technology known as magnetoencephalography (MEG) – a non-invasive method of detecting magnetic fields that spontaneously emerge from the human brain. “My research focused on understanding pre-stimulus brain activity,” Ronald explains. “How does your brain prepare to respond when you are anticipating an upcoming stimulus such as an auditory beep or flash of light?”

Slowed reaction times and abnormal brain responses were typical of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)1,2, elderly persons with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s3,4, and in overly sedentary individuals (unpublished data). The research tracked people with CFS over several years to monitor degeneration in brain responses and correlated changes in symptoms.

“In the second year of the study, I noticed some patients’ reaction time improved and their brainwaves normalized,” says Ronald. “This occurred in individuals assigned to a particular condition – one that used a new operating system at the time, Windows98. Like any diligent young researcher, I sifted through hours of data looking for answers. Unamused, I discovered a timing error in the software which essentially rendered two years of data collection useless.”

With no significant data, the grant was not renewed. Ronald moved on to other endeavours. Nevertheless, curiosity drove years of manual analysis after which a systemic pattern emerged that revealed a possible theoretical reason why the patients improved. Realizing the therapeutic potential of the finding, Ronald began developing software that duplicated the chance finding. Unfortunately, a viable commercial product was not produced – at least not one that attracted investment.

The project was on the back burner until 2001 when Susan announced, at age 48, that she was going to start running.

Training your brain – at least with Ronald’s software – does not automatically create a stronger and faster body. You still must do the work (as Lance Armstrong once famously said). But, it gives you a slight advantage to push yourself just a little bit harder than you normally would with each workout.

With a proper training program, you improve at a rate that otherwise would be frustrating and exhausting. “Positive self-talk is a waste of time, “says Ronald. “Extreme physical effort can be fostered by unconscious processes without the need for justification. I taunt my sister with pre-race comments, but she performs at a peak level every race.”

“I lead just by example. I simply have people follow me around the track, rest when I rest, and match my pace best they can at various distances.”

Ronald’s theories are too complicated to explain to the group,” Susan stated. “By the time I finished describing the concepts, the allotted workout time would be over! Instead, I lead just by example. I simply have people follow me around the track, rest when I rest, and match my pace best they can at various distances.”

Do these methods work? “It’s impossible to tell without a controlled study,” says Ronald.  What we do know is that consistent application of the principles has allowed Susan to improve her times despite aging. She is still setting personal bests and course records year-after-year.

And the Sneakers? Susan’s perspective is that group’s workouts should be fun and entertaining. Group runs are not a platform for lessons in neuroscience and cognition. The coach, always in the background, monitors individuals for form, enjoyment and attitude. Many of the Sneakers continue to become elites in their age-groups and excel in competitions. “I’m excited to see members in their 80s and 90s continue to improve,” says Susan. “Their dedication is impressive.”

Are Ronald’s methods available to everyone? “I’ve never published nor disclosed the exact mechanism behind the phenomenon because it is patentable technology. Mainstream researchers, however, are unlikely to consider my novel approaches. Documenting age-related declines in athletic performance is a popular topic in academics these days despite many people proving that need not be the case.Rarely do the outliers get the attention they deserve.”

Nevertheless, Ronald says that if anyone wants a detailed explanation of how premotor cerebral motor cortex activity can be enhanced to prevent age-related declines in reaction time and sensitivity to fatigue by using real-time neurofeedback from synthetic aperture magnetometry (SAM) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)6,7, he’d be happy to oblige with an explanation.”

 

References

  1. Gordon, R., Starr, A., Michalewski, H., Nguyen, T., and Gupta, S. (1999). Cortical motor potential alterations in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. International Journal of Molecular Medicine, 4, 493-499.
  2. Gordon, R., Michalewski, H., T. Nguyen, and Starr, A. (1999). Pre-movement and cognitive brain potentials in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Journal of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, 5, 137-148.
  3. Golob E.J., Johnson J.K., Starr A. (2002). Auditory event-related potentials during target detection are abnormal in mild cognitive impairment. Clinical Neurophysiology, 113(1): 151-161.
  4. Golob E.J. & Starr A. (2000). Effects of stimulus sequence on event-related potentials and reaction time during target detection in Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical Neurophysiology, 111(8): 1438-1449.
  5. Bashore TR, Wylie SA, Ridderinkhof KR, Martinerie JM. (2014). Response-specific slowing in older age revealed through differential stimulus and response effects on P300 latency and reaction time. Neuropsychology, development, and cognition Section B, Aging, neuropsychology and cognition, 21(6):633-673.
  6. Caramia, M.D., Scalise, A., Gordon, R., Michalewski, H.J., and Starr, A. (2000). Delayed facilitation of motor cortical excitability following repetitive finger movements, Clinical Neurophysiology, 111, 1654-1660.
  7. Starr, A., Scalise, A., Gordon, R., Michalewski, H.J., and Caramia, M.D. (2000).  Motor cortex excitability in chronic fatigue syndrome, Clinical Neurophysiology, 111, 2025-2031.