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International, independent, e-magazine on skydiving, BASE & tunnel

Banish Big-way Brainlocks!

brain glowing

Brain Lock

Brain lock – A condition of temporary confusion, indecision, or mental paralysis - Merriam Webster

Been there, done that, right?

We should add - Cognitive lapses that arise from failing to manage the known precipitating conditions.

202-way, sequential world record, set by Sequential Games in 2015&nbsp;&mdash;&nbsp;by <a href='' class='captionLink'>Andrey Veselov</a>
202-way, sequential world record, set by Sequential Games in 2015 — by Andrey Veselov

“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful skydive in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” – Adapted from Walt Disney

World Record events

Nobody needs to eliminate brain locks more than jumpers on the forthcoming World Record attempts at Eloy, and big-way participants in general. Yet they are still happening. To us. We see them in the video debriefs. A jumper docks in the wrong slot. Another can’t recognize his slot, circles the formation but never finds it. Still another makes a hard dock like he hasn’t done in a thousand jumps. We shake our heads and tweak elements of the skydive like exit order or slot assignments. But while brain locks manifest themselves in random patterns, that they occur is not random at all. Brain locks are predictable. Across many disciplines the phenomena is well documented and becoming increasingly well understood. So let’s identify and try to resolve those precipitating conditions!

Brain locks are predictable
Night World Record dirtdive, 2016&nbsp;&mdash;&nbsp;by <a href='' class='captionLink'>Laszlo Andacs</a>
Night World Record dirtdive, 2016 — by Laszlo Andacs

To best illustrate those conditions, let’s view big-ways through the lens of a sports nutritionist. Here‘s what that might look like:

A bunch of old people assemble for multiple, very long days. For some, airline travel has disrupted their circadian rhythms. Many are on short rest. Multiple circumstances dehydrate virtually all of them through the day. There is little time set aside for, or access to, food. They are maintaining constant light-to-moderate exertion levels, interjected by routine high stress performance demands. While running themselves down all day nutritionally, they attempt to set higher and higher skydiving standards, safely…

Older people are more likely to suffer from dehydration &nbsp;&mdash;&nbsp;by Harry Parker
Older people are more likely to suffer from dehydration  — by Harry Parker

Performance Critical Control Points (PCCPs)

Such a stark characterization underscores some (what I’ll call) Performance Critical Control Points (PCCPs). These PCCPs will begin to cascade as in any complex system so it is worth noting as many as apply. Some can be managed or controlled outright. Some can only be identified and managed using indirect means. Here’s how I see them in order of most immutable to most manageable:

PCCP #1 -Age

Many of us are old. Studies demonstrate that older people suffer from a decreasing thirst response which results in an increased potential for dehydration. Dehydration will be addressed later.

Studies have shown that flying across time zones harms athletic performance&nbsp;&mdash;&nbsp;by <a href='' class='captionLink'>Lesley Gale</a>
Studies have shown that flying across time zones harms athletic performance — by Lesley Gale

PCCP #2 - Flights

A recent Northwestern University study spanning 20 years and 40,000 Major League Baseball games shows that baseball players’ performance suffers due to disruptions in circadian rhythms. According to this study the effects are “detectable and significant”, especially when flying across two or more time zones, most significantly when flying east across two or more time zones.

This study recommends having key players (pitchers) fly ahead a few days beforehand when possible. This won’t be practical for most of us, but it’s worth considering in case you can fly in early and get settled. This issue may also serve to highlight the need to address the other more manageable ones, and to encourage us to get adequate rest.

Take healthy snacks to ensure you're getting enough fuel&nbsp;&mdash;&nbsp;by <a href='' class='captionLink'>Aj Blackmon</a>
Take healthy snacks to ensure you're getting enough fuel — by Aj Blackmon

PCCP #3 - Nutrition

The food part. Tight schedules make it a challenge to stay properly fueled. Often there are limited blocks of time between landing and dirtdiving the next load. If you take 20 minutes to walk in and pack, there may only be another 20 minutes remaining for ANY other activity, including debriefing and briefing, making eating unlikely to happen.


Plan Breakfast

Although older folk may only need 1500 to 1800 calories a day ordinarily, we push ourselves in multi day skydiving events. And it is critical to keep the intake ahead of the demand curve. That means breakfast. Suggestion… Eat something to start the day. Four to six hundred calories is a decent start. This could be as little as a PBJ and a glass of fruit juice, milk and a banana with almonds, or a naked breakfast burrito.

Plan Lunch and Dinner

Whether bagged or purchased, plan it. It won’t just happen. Bring healthy snacks. Bring some salty snacks too, as you will be losing minerals through sweating all day. Consider the benefits of grazing many very small meals throughout the day.

Additionally, I highly recommend taking a nutritious high carb snack and/ or beverage in the hour leading into target attempts (avoid high carbs earlier on to avoid post-carb slump). For the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chef Tony and I prepared a “Power Shot” for the seventh inning stretch for all players still in the game. This was a fresh, cold 20 ounce beverage that we extracted from six to ten assorted fresh fruits/vegetables daily. “Naked” has several similar items for sale right off the shelf. The nutrients are easily absorbed and your brain is going to need calories to burn.

Water is essential for performance
Water is essential for performance

PCCP #4 – Hydration

This is the Control Point with the most impact, the good news is, it's also the most manageable - proper hydration! Our ages, dry environment, tough schedule, long days and more are all going to conspire to dry us out. In and of itself, dehydration is problematic. But what affects us are the recorded links between dehydration and cognitive performance (brain locks).

Military studies find soldiers’ performance can suffer as much as 20% when they are dehydrated. Another study, here, shows pilots’ spatial cognition suffers when they are dehydrated. Note that this study also raises the subject of pilot safety as it relates to their decreased performance. We share this scope of concern as we skydivers also rely on quick decision-making to save our lives in an unforgiving environment.

While no direct studies of skydiver performance tied to hydration exist, and with few studies of older peoples performance, we must look into related studies. The 20% figure mentioned above is somewhat reflected in another study of nine year olds’ ability to stay on task (focus) when properly hydrated or not. Those figures show a 25% decrease. We cannot draw direct comparisons, but we will be more susceptible to dehydration while suffering some negative effects. While an argument could be made that our high experience levels may bring a 25% or 20% degradation down by some factor, the fact that we continue to see brain locks at all in so experienced a group suggests that we need to do much more. When you factor in safety, one could argue that we need to do everything possible.

Go easy on the alcohol or have a rehydration plan&nbsp;&mdash;&nbsp;by <a href='' class='captionLink'>Ralph Wilhelm</a>
Go easy on the alcohol or have a rehydration plan — by Ralph Wilhelm

Further Considerations

Pre-Event Alcohol Consumption

The dehydration effects that follow a night of robust alcohol consumption are well known, especially nightly drinking during a multi-day event. Your body will deplete fluids in order to expel alcohol.

Suggestion… Enjoy yourself. I certainly will be. But we can either aggressively replace fluids or minimize their loss due to alcohol. Either way, be proactive.


Coffee contributes to hydration, up to the point where you’re consuming the caffeine equivalent of five cups. Then you reach a tipping point where your body wants to pee away the excess caffeine, so don’t overdo coffee or energy drinks.

Dehydration and loss of performance links

Here are some supporting links:

Dehydration & Cognitive Performance Deteriorates with Age

Impaired cognitive function and mental performance in mild dehydration


Given that your body can absorb about 2 pints of water an hour, 24 to 32 fluid ounces per hour should be your target for consumption. At the very least, drink whenever you are the least bit thirsty, and plan ahead to have fluids available. Make it about 80% water and the remaining 20% sports drinks and fruit juices to replace electrolytes and carbs. Watermelon, fruits and veggies count too. If you don’t pee all day, you're in trouble.

We may have the best skydivers with the best plans, at the best DZs. But we’re behind the curve if we are not at our personal best. Eliminating brain locks where we know they lurk has got to be part of The Plan.

Good Luck and Blue Skies!