Ever wonder what happens to your brain during athletic training and competition? Too lazy to spend the better part of a decade getting a PHD in neurobiology to find out? Don't worry - CrossFit Games Competitor and PHD Allison Brager has you covered. Her new book "Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain" presents the neuroscience of exercise in a fun straightforward way and illustrates the concepts with examples from her own athletic career. We recently caught up with Allison to get her thoughts on "Meathead" and find out what motivated her to write the book.
Fitness Cult Chronicles: Tell us a little bit about your athletic and academic background.
I've been an athlete my entire life and will continue to be one until the day I die. Growing up in blue collar Youngstown Ohio, athletics was always a major part of the community . Three of my high school friends currently play in the NFL and several others were Olympians in swimming and track and field. In fact, the Youngstown community's athletic achievements were featured in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled, "Youngstown Boys." I also have NFL roots on my mother's side of the family and my uncle was a Golden Gloves boxer. Plus, nearly all of my cousins and siblings who went the college route played collegiate sports at the Division I or III level. So yes, athletics was a major focus of my upbringing!
My interests didn't stop with athletics though. I have always been fascinated by sleep and brain function. As a kid, I would make sure that I got 8 hrs of sleep even if I had homework to finish. The next day grogginess in class and at practice wasn't worth a few extra hours of staying up. Also, because I played very risky sports--gymnastics and pole vault--and had a few near death experiences from high falls, it always intrigued me that I could just brush those moments of panic off and go back to my starting position to try again. This is what fueled me to major in psychology in college and fall in love with neuroscience.
As far as how I got to where I am now, I also love working with young people. They keep you young and grounded. Teaching is also a lot like coaching. It's difficult at times but when there is a breakthrough and a student has a moment of clarity, it is very gratifying. I could not imagine working outside of a university setting because of this. You don't do it for the pay but for the love of the game (career in this case) much like the culture of collegiate athletes.
FC^2: What Inspired You To Write "Meathead"?
A few things inspired me to crack open my laptop and start working on this project. First, I had an "aha" moment where I realized that there was no book on the market about this topic. I can ensure you that I am not the first collegiate or high level athlete with a PHD in neuroscience. Second, I really enjoy being a "black sheep" in academia. Many academics refuse to write for the general public because they feel as if their intelligence is being insulted by having to simplify the complexity of data and even the language (ie, jargon). I have heard this mentioned several times. It is our civic duty once we get taxpayer money to do science to not only make the science accessible but UNDERSTANDABLE to the general public. Many academics fail at this. So, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to take care of this conundrum by focusing on a topic and lifestyle I am very passionate about.
FC^2: What Do You Hope to Accomplish With The Book?
There isn't just one demographic that I am targeting which I hope is conveyed in the book.
There is no question that this is a manual for enhancing performance and recovery. Recovery is just as important as performance especially for those of us who have spent a significant amount of time training. I believe that seasoned athletes will find it interesting to learn more about how the brain interacts with the body during training and competition.
I'm also hoping it will inspire people who live a more sedentary lifestyle to move more and move faster. Those moments of shortness of breath, muscle fatigue and aching are coupled with moments of euphoria and clarity during and after a workout. But even if we could bottle that emotional feeling, there is still something very visceral and primordial about dripping with sweat, a racing heart, and feeling the blood rush through your entire body and head. That stuff is addicting. Plus, exercise just makes every aspect of life better.
FC^2: What Sets "Meathead" Apart From Other Books That Explore Athletic Performance And The Brain?
Like I said earlier, there aren't many books out there on this topic! What sets my book apart from the few that are out there is that the science is delivered by a "hometown girl" with extensive experience as an athlete. One of my favorites quotes from Mark Twain is, "I never let schooling interfere with my education", which I tried to embody in Meathead. This book has hard (meritocratic) scientific evidence blended with application from lifestyle and experience. Nothing touches the human soul and brings together a community like sport. Even the science of sport can be abstract, so I think that it is important to give these concepts some context by relating them to examples from my own life and popular culture.
FC^2: It Looks Like You Lead A Pretty Busy Life. How Long Did It Take You To Write "Meathead"? Can You Tell Us A Bit About Your Writing Process?
Some of my friends might say I have ADHD but I just hate being idle mentally or physically (except when I'm sleeping!). I started working on this book in late 2012 when I had that "Aha" moment mentioned earlier. I really started hammering through it though after my team qualified and competed in the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games, hoping to publish it while still "athletically relevant." The book took two years to write as I would only have time to work on it in between 4.5 hour trips from Atlanta to Savannah (where my husband lives) on weekends. So I guess that I should thank Greyhound too.
When it came to publishing, I had guidance from the moment I started writing. Two non-fictional writers really helped me (TJ Murphy and Rachel Herz) and put me in contact with related publishers. After several rejections because of the book being "too much science" or not "academic enough" (the reviewer was likely part of that "I'm too good for the general public" contingent), WestBow Press was (thankfully) aggressive in publishing this work and so I stuck with them.
FC^2: Do You Have Any More Projects In The Works? Or Plans To Explore More Of The Scientific Underpinnings Of Functional Fitness?
When it comes to publishing I haven't had anymore "aha" moments lately, but I would like to expand on some of the topics in this book as the research continues to grow. I also would like to spend more time focusing on exercise addiction. There's no question that I'm an addict much like most people who find CrossFit after collegiate sports. But then you also have former college athletes who hate sports and want nothing to do with training. Why is that?
You Can Buy "Meathead" Here:
About Allison Brager:
Professional: Academic Researcher w/ a focus on neurobiology @ Morehouse School of Medicine and professor at Morehouse College
PHD Info: Kent State w focus on neurobiology (PHD from Department of Biological Sciences)
CrossFit Games Experience: 2014 Regionals Athlete, 2013 CrossFit Games - Team, 2012 Regionals Athlete
Collegiate Athletic Background: Brown University Track & Field, 4 year varsity letterman, specialist in pole vault and hurdles
Facebook: Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
Allison's Blog: www.dormivigilia.com
Instagram and Twitter: @beastlyvaulter
I bought the Kindle edition of "Meathead" after seeing someone post about it on Twitter. I give the book four stars - the content is interesting and Allison presents it in a fun and relatable way (who knew rodents were such alcoholics?). Dealing with Allison was a blast. She is also extremely responsive - I'm sure if you have any questions regarding the book she will try to answer them on the Official Meathead Facebook Fan Page.
Also, we are not being compensated for writing this article. No affiliate fees, advertising dollars or free books. I got my kindle edition of the book the old fashioned way - by paying for it!