What type of athlete are you? Part 2:Your Brain

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

Oct 2nd, 2014

"It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor." ~Marcus Tullius Cicero

In a previous EC article, I looked at some of the physical differences that I see, as a coach, between athletes that impacts how I program for them. I broke this classification down into 3 broad categories – high responders (‘The Naturals’), average responders (‘The Realists’) and low responders (‘The Workers’). I’ve recently been reading a great book called ‘Squat Everyday’ by Matt Perryman. In it, he comes to a similar conclusion about the responder-non responder spectrum (in the world of strength training) but also adds a new term to the mix – reactivity.

The idea behind reactivity is that we are all born with slightly different (mental) ‘wiring’ that affects how we respond to a given (general) stimulus. In one corner, we have the ‘high reactives’ – folks who perceive any given stimulus as more intense than average. At the extreme end, we might find disorders such as Autism, where stimuli is perceived as painfully intense. A little further along the scale, we might find the introverts, like myself, who find high stimuli environments very taxing from an energy perspective. Folks who need frequent periods of quiet and solitude to recharge (for a neat assessment tool of where you rank on the introversion/extroversion scale, along with some other dimensions, click here).

On the other end of the reactivity spectrum, we find the ‘low reactives’, people who need to actively seek stimuli in order to feel ‘happy’. These are the skydivers, the social butterflies and, on the dysfunctional end of the spectrum, the kids taking Ritalin for their ADHD. At the very extreme end of this scale we find the cocaine addicts!

It is thought that one of the key players in where an individual lies along the scale is the hormone/neurotransmitter, dopamine. In a simplified sense, dopamine is a natural 'upper' that amplifies experiences and makes the individual more aware of his/her environment. It makes sense then that, individuals with above normal levels of this neurotransmitter would be motivated to 'quiet things down', while those with low levels would be on the look out to 'amp things up'.

In support of this 'dopamine hypothesis', Ritalin, a common treatment for ADHD, is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor that leaves more dopamine ‘in the system’ so that that individual won’t be forced to seek a release from risky or inappropriate activities. On the other end, a common treatment strategy for Autism is Haloperidol - a dopamine antagonist that brings down the natural levels of dopamine in the system.

This hypothesized link between dopamine and sensation seeking behavior extends beyond theory. For example, in a very neat review article, that will probably interest this readership, Knab and Lightfoot (2010) found a strong (inverse) link between natural dopamine levels and the desire of rats to run on a wheel. In fact the 'low natural dopamine group' would voluntarily run 17x longer than the high dopamine 'couch potato' rats!

Extending this to the more interesting world of human athletes, we might take this to mean that an athlete who is low reactive, i.e. a pleasure seeker would be more motivated to use regular exercise to satisfy that craving, while the high reactives will hide at home, watching the world go by. Indeed this is one possible outcome. However, exercise can be an equally powerful ‘medicine’ for the high reactives as well, providing it is the right type of exercise.

At the other end of the dopamine spectrum lies another neuro-transmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is the ‘sleepy, happy’ neurotransmitter. What cocaine is to dopamine, beer is to serotonin. This is another very powerful neurotransmitter when it comes to an individual’s mood. Indeed, there is a multi billion dollar industry set up around Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s), i.e. drugs that leave more of that ‘good feeling’ serotonin ‘free-ranging’ in the individual’s synapses.

For high reactive, ‘stressed out’ types, this is ‘the good stuff’. Serotonin ‘chills the individual out’ and numbs down some of the sensitivity to outside stimuli. So, while the low reactives are out hunting for dopamine, all the high reactives want is a little more serotonin floating around the system. Fortunately, exercise (of the right type) can give both types exactly what you’re craving.

Stress hormone and neurotransmitter response is heavily dependent on the duration and intensity of the training. Studies have shown a marked difference in the hormone/neurotransmitter response in accordance with the duration and intensity of training (e.g. Christensen et al.,1979, Kotchen at al., 1971, McMurray et al.,1987). Each of these studies came to a similar conclusion - high intensity, short duration exercise leads to marked stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system – with the release of high levels of cortisol, catecholamines and that sweet, sweet, dopamine. However, when intensity is reduced and duration is increased, a funny thing happens - while dopamine & serotonin are initially high (similar to the high intensity exercise), after a period, dopamine levels actually fall below resting levels, while serotonin continues to increase. This is a key player in the concept of central fatigue that I explore a little more here. High serotonin and low dopamine leads to a happy 'training drunk' state. This phenomenon is something we frequently observe at our EC training camps, something my buddy Gordo calls – 'fatigue intoxication'. For the high reactive introvert this is a truly blissful state!

So, this is all very interesting you say, but isn’t this a training blog? How does this directly apply to the best type of training for a given athlete? In 2 very important ways: By taking into consideration the athlete's natural neurochemistry when selecting the overall volume and intensity of the training, we can significantly affect..

  1. Enjoyment!
  2. Just as mission 1 of the Doc is to “do no harm”, mission 1 of the Coach is to make training sufficiently enjoyable that the athlete sticks with it. If a sensation seeking athlete with depressive tendencies is given a boat load of long, slow solo aerobic work that leaves them feeling tired and run down, are they likely to stick with the program? Similarly if an anxiety prone loner is fed a diet of high intensity competitive group training, is he likely to thrive?

  3. Overall Training Response
  4. Related to the above, the risk of burnout extends beyond the mental/social sphere. Is an athlete who is highly reactive to his environment and in a perpetual (non training related) stress response likely to adapt to a high intensity training program? No, as Hans Selye suggested many years ago, we all have a limited adaptation energy. This is not compartmentalized to exercise and life stress, it is general. If you use it up, dealing with day to day life, it won’t be there to deal with training. The above was actually the subject of my Masters thesis – the impact of psycho-social stressors on the adaptation process of elite athletes. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say that the athletes who had the highest reported life stress scales were also those who exhibited the poorest adaptation to a given training load. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to bring in this concept of reactivity – in how the athletes percceived these given life events as stressful, but the long and the short of it is… physical stress and psychological stress cannot be separated. They both draw from the same pool of energy reserves.

"What this means to the coach is that, he/she must be extra careful, (especially with intensity) with those athletes who he/she notes as ‘highly reactive’--athletes who are a little more naturally anxious. Similarly, the coach must be equally concerned with not overloading the low reactive type with too much boring volume or a lack of variety in programming."

If we bring the athlete's natural dopamine and serotonin levels together, we get a nice little quadrant system that can describe the best type of training for the various athlete types to give them just what they need to maximize both physical and neurochemical response. This is shown on the chart below...

Q1: High Reactivity/Low Training Response(High Dopamine/Low Serotonin)

This type of athlete is extra sensitive to environmental stimuli, perhaps 'high strung' would be a good description. He is typically more of a loner & enjoys predictable (some would say monotonous) training programs. While he may enjoy occasional competition, he finds too much competition or competitive training situations very psychologically stressful and they tend to wear him down. With their naturally high stress hormone levels, these athletes are prime candidates for sympathetic overtraining (where the system becomes perpetually revved up - high resting HR, inability sleeping etc). They are very receptive to long duration, low intensity training and the pleasant tiredness that follows these sorts of sessions. The challenge with this athlete is the emotional fragility that can be challenged by the inherent nature of competitive sports. If re-channeled into a less competitive venue/environment, exercise can be an incredibly powerful therapy for these types - an outlet for that inner energy.

Q2: Low Reactivity/Low Training Response(Low Dopamine/Low Serotonin)

This type of athlete is craving the sort of satisfaction that comes from good, solid, work. While the Q1 athletes may be akin to a highly strung Arabian Horse, these athletes are the hardy Clydesdales. They enjoy work of any description as much as they enjoy anything and they can handle it. They rarely get sick or injured despite high workloads. They can get bored with too much routine. They also are prime candidates for exercise addiction as, when the volume drops and the work isn't rolling on, it can leave them a little empty, sometimes even depressed. In a lot of ways, these athletes need work to keep them happy and in the absence of it, will sometimes turn to less desirable behaviours. This is one of the greatest challenges for these athletes - convincing them of the need for taking a break from the work to let the systems rebuild.

Q3: Low Reactivity/High Response(Low Dopamine/High Serotonin)

Returning to my horsey metaphor, these are the Thoroughbreds. They are high spirited and competitive, if a little fragile at times. They crave competition and thrive in a competitive squad type atmosphere but frequently have to be held back to prevent overtraining. They love intense training but left unchecked, it can quickly tire them out. Fortunately, they don't need a lot of training to be good! Too much low intensity aerobic work will make them tired and take from their natural speed and strength. Too much high intensity work will quickly break these athletes. For these athletes, it is a fine balance between doing enough to keep the fire lit while protecting them from themselves


I’m curious… If you think about a real life example from each of these types, from your own experience, who do you see? For me, I see 3 very different types of athletes, not just in psychology, but also morphotype – with Type 1 – the high reactive, low response athlete, resembling the typical high anxiety, Type-A, skinny runner type. Type 2 – the low response, low reactive athlete representing the athlete who has a tendency to weight gain in the absence of appropriate activity, and type 3 – the high response, low reactive being represented by ‘the natural’ someone with naturally high levels of muscle mass and athleticism, the prototypical quarter back on your high school team. Indeed, this relationship between psychology and morphology was postulated by the originator of Somatotyping – William Sheldon back in the 40’s. It remains one of the more controversial aspects of his research but, in my opinion and experience, in terms of ‘sizing up’ the athlete that you’re working with, remains a very useful perspective to keep in the back of your mind. It just may be that the athlete's physical training response and psychological/neuro-biological type are intimately linked.

Irrespective, in the grand scheme of things, the importance of taking into consideration your ‘neurochemical type’ when selecting the right type of exercise program for you is significantly more important than selecting the exercise that will give you the best physical response. In this low activity, ‘first world’, psychological disorders are bordering on epidemic and before reaching for the Prozac, Ritalin or whatever cocktail your over-worked physician may prescribe, it is worth considering the role that movement could potentially play in both the cause of any faulty brain chemistry and in its healing.

Train smart,




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