Are you as functionally optimised as you could possibly be? The likelihood is that you’re not, but research being undertaken by Red Bull might one day help you to change that.
Red Bull’s motivation for all of its high-risk stunts and work with elite athletes is part of its mission “to understand what it takes the very best you can be”, says Andy Walshe, the company’s high performance director speaking at WIRED Health.
When athletes work with Red Bull, they are usually already the best in the world at what they do, which is why they are the perfect people to try and optimise. Trying to understand how to do this means taking the “holistic approach”, says Walshe. “Being fundamentally great at what you do requires us looking at the whole person.”
If these athletes are already in peak physical performance, it’s necessary to look beyond those things can be quantified and measure things that can’t be measured — things like resilience and spirit. “The next big evolution in this world of what we’re talking about is getting some interaction around these things,” says Walshe.
Walshe has worked on what is perhaps Red Bull’s most famous project to date — Stratos, the space-diving challenge undertaken by Felix Baumgartner. “It was a highly technical project,” he says. “We were trying to understand as much as we possibly could about him as an individual and what he is into. Felix spoke openly about his personal challenges.”
The technical glitches that occurred ahead of the eventual successful space dive taught the team what it takes to prepare the individual for such a mission. “Approaching these extraordinary adventures meant that you had to learn to cope with these failures,” says Walshe.
“We all have this dream this vision to have something thats never been done before. Things go sideways and don’t go as planned. With that in mind we thought how do we create this framework, how do we prepare for the unknown?”
That’s when Red Bull came up with Project Acheron, named after Dante’s description of man’s descent into hell. “We leant on that metaphor,” says Walshe. It involved drawing elite athletes out of their everyday environments and sending them on a spiritually, emotionally and physically demanding journey. Red Bull embarked on the idea, says Walshe, “with the idea that if you can master yourself in these situations, you can improve globally”.
The company dumped four elite female athletes, who had no idea where they were going in the Kimberley in north-west Australia, with the hope that they would learn something that they could take back to their sport or real life.
“We measured very heavily scientifically pre and post, and that informed us of the power of this approach,” says Walshe. The MRI scans showed a remarkable changes in the brain. “You can see even in eight days the shift in the individual is fairly profound.”
The next step is to use technology to replicate similar changes in other individuals. “The sense of excitement around the quantified self is driving this to a whole new space,” says Walshe. “We’re going to see staggering changes in the next short periods of time.”
Obviously the majority of us are not elite athletes, but it’s possible that one day we too could be optimised using methods currently being developed by Red Bull. “Its inspiring and amazing and it shows us potentially what is in all of us,” says Walshe.