Back in 1997 I was a kid when a friend of mine introduced me to a card game that I had never heard about: Magic The Gathering. Soon after, all my friends were playing it. In 2000, with university and different life interests taking over, my Magic folder was put in a corner and stayed there until last year. I decided to look at the Magic scene and to my amazement, it was a very different world! Now there were pro player, pro tours, no more mana burn(?!?!?!?) and planeswalkers. So I got back into it out of curiosity, although the challenge and creativity of the game is still what attracts me the most.
Presently, with much more life experience and scientific knowledge, I’m much more aware of how competitive things can get. Also, coming from a competitive sports background means that I know how important marginal gains can be. Long seasons, grinding tournaments… How do you keep at top form? What can you do to keep your brain performing like a Swiss clock?
Whatever your career (Magic player, accountant, doctor, lawyer, etc), if you need to rely on your brain performance you need to look after your fitness and nutrition. This article will focus on Magic players but you can actually apply it to anything. On a related note, I’ve noticed that Luis Scott-Vargas and Reid Duke definitely follow some kind of fitness routine. There is not a coincidence they are great players.
The brain consumes a lot of energy and therefore it’s important to keep feeding it, especially in a long event. Have you noticed that in sport teams and players tend to make more mistakes by the end of the match? This is often because they are tired and the brain is getting fewer calories. As a result their cognitive processing is affected. Does this mean that one should eat more and drink sugary brain stimulant drinks? No! In fact, too many calories reduces synaptic plasticity and increases cell damage. Further, junk food or foods high on saturated fats decrease brain function.
One important protein we should always have in consideration for brain performance;
BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is related to energy metabolism and synaptic plasticity: low levels affect memory and cognitive processing. From a metabolic perspective BDNF also affects insulin and glucose sensitivity and lipid metabolism.
In order to have enough BDNF it is key to eat healthily and do exercise.
Putting it into practice
So we know that exercise and diet improves brain function. What to do?
- In your normal daily routine eat healthy. Every meal should have approximately two palms of protein (one if you are a woman), one fist of carbohydrates (this includes vegetables) and a thumb of fats (olive oil, nuts, etc).
- Reduce alcohol intake.
- When you go shopping for food, try to only buy stuff that you would find in nature (fish fingers, mac&cheese or frozen pizzas can’t be found in nature!).
- Blueberries, Vitamin Bs, broccoli and wholegrain directly improve your brain performance so go for it.
During a long event it’s important to keep your concentration levels high so:
- Avoid sugary stuff. It gives you a high but soon will drop you to the floor. Some think the “solution” is to keep having it. Do this and you will be so tired hafway through the event that you’ll probably forget to play a land on turn 1.
- Take with you or buy at the site a good meal with lots of slow release carbs and proteins. Slow release carbs will breakdown in your digestive system slowly and therefore will give you consistent energy levels. Protein will keep you full for longer. Great sources of these include broccoli, beans, greens, tomato, meat, fish, etc. Good fats are also a great option, such as salmon or anything with omega 3 and 6.
- Have brain function boosting snacks and drinks with you (beef jerky is great, nuts, blueberries, plenty of water).
- If you only have sandwiches available pick one with no processed bread, no mayo, some protein and vegetables. If you make it for day 2 bring food from home.
- If you feel sleepy I would recommend to have an apple. According to research it does the same job of a coffee to keep you awake and alert.
We already know that your fitness level is key for your brain performance so start moving now! Exercise also reduces the negative effects of unhealthy diets (this however, doesn’t mean that you can eat badly).
- If you think that you have too much weight, start by moving. To start out, long walks or some light cardio will do just fine, although you can do whatever you want and enjoy as long as you move. Do this at least 3 times a week for 30min-60min each time. Try to break a sweat or feel your heart rate increasing.
- If you feel that you can do more and want to go to the next level then it’s time to do something more structured be it weight lifting or sports. This time you would want to do 3 sessions a week of 45min-60min each. Again, the activity in question is not important as long as it keeps you active and you enjoy it. You need to be consistent so the fun/enjoyable part is key.
- Don’t be afraid of asking for help. The last thing you want is to get injured or waste your time with pointless exercise programs.
- During an event if you have time between rounds go for a walk and get some fresh air. Mobilising your trunk is also a good idea as you’re spending almost all day sitting. Stand up and twist your trunk to one side (slowly) and then to the other side. Repeat this several times.
If your sleep is not great then your brain won’t be at its best for sure. Sleep is when our body recovers. If there isn’t proper recovery then our body gets stressed and releases cortisol (the stress hormone). This hormone spikes especially in the morning and is what normally wakes us up. Cortisol is stored as fat especially around our waist. And guess what, when we are stressed we have problems sleeping. This cat and mouse between stress and sleep can easily become a huge unmanageable snowball.
What to do:
- Stop looking at screens one hour before going to bed.
- Don’t have any stimulants or sugary food after 3pm.
- Sleep in complete darkness.
Please leave a comment or email me here is you need any help or have any questions.
The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities – Fernando Gomez?Pinilla, Charles Hillman
Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function –Fernando Gómez-Pinilla
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain – John J Ratey MD