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Your brain: key to success, or Achilles heel?

Posted by Bold Commerce Collaborator on

Your brain: key to success, or Achilles heel?

Recent scientific studies have shown that there’s more to winning the game than just practicing until you’re perfect. We’ll be looking at the four ways athletes should be expanding their training to work their brains as well as their bodies. (1)

First, you need to understand how the nervous system works. The system itself is made up of all the nerve cells (neurons) in the body, and it controls a vast majority of the mechanisms inside the body. It is also how we take in sensory information from the world and process it to produce a reaction. Neurons are made up of short and long extension attached to their cell-body; the shorter extensions (dendrites) receive signals from other neurons, which are then passed on through the longer extensions (axons), which carry the transmissions away from the neurone. Axons make up the “bundles” you generally associate with nerves. (1) (2)

Switch it up!

When you repeat a movement over and over, the nervous system goes through a period of awkward, clunky actions before it learns that movement and you can do it with minimal thought. This is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is extremely useful for athletes, but it comes with a catch — if you don’t continue doing these movements and using your body in that way, you can lose that learned information. 

One way you can push your body’s neuroplasticity to encompass more movements and support your body in a wider range of movements, is to include unexpected activities in your normal routine. 

An example of this would be kicking off your shoes and moving your workout outside, using grass and dirt to create an unstable surface that your body isn’t used to moving on. This encourages full-body activation and creates new pathways in your brain, strengthening your learned movements. (1)

Know your limits…

Many athletes are constantly fighting inflammation and injury in their line of work, but those involved in strenuous, repetitive training routines may be perpetuating that pain and stiffness. 

The fascia is a network of tissues throughout the body that encases all parts, wrapping around tendons, ligaments and bones to stabilise joints and support movement. The fascia communicate with the nervous system —they have 10 times more connections to the nervous system than any other part of the body — coordinating movements and sending information on a constant loop between the brain and the spinal cord. 

Repetition of exercises that stress the fascia beyond their limits causes the fascia to become dense and static, disrupting communication with the nervous system and making movement painful and difficult.

To prevent this, athletes should focus on incorporating variations of resistance and non-repetitive activities that fire the nervous system without over-stressing the fascia.

An old favourite

Whether it’s going for a jog in the park or going for a personal best, stretching is necessary to prepare the muscles for movement so they can adequately protect the influenced joints. But, we’ve always known that — so what’s different now? (3) 

When you stretch muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia past their anatomical and neurological limit, they are less likely to fire quickly and correctly, meaning they’re not going to be able to support your joints like they’re meant to. This creates instability and a greater chance of injury, especially if you are over-stretching and causing damage on a regular basis. 

To strengthen the connection between muscles and nervous system, you should stretch with the goal to influence the muscle, rather than to become more flexible. Keep in mind your body’s natural capacity, and know that pushing your body beyond its natural limits for more than 15 seconds can damage your neuromuscular system — tendons and ligaments are much more difficult to heal compared to muscles, which are designed to stretch up to double their length.

Have you tried multitasking?

No, we don’t mean rubbing your stomach while you pat your head (but, we sort of do). Studies have shown that engaging multiple systems in one exercise results in greater strength, balance, and neurological performance. 

For example, taking an exercise like the classic plank and adding in a twist, an exercise ball or another form of movement creates an exercise that engages your nervous system not only in strengthening your core but also your balance. You could also use unstable surfaces or bare feet to increase the number of sensory systems firing in a given workout, which also helps with increasing neuroplasticity.

What’s the takeaway?

You don’t have to be a high-performing athlete to want to get better at what you do, and understanding the connection between movement and your brain is key to building new neural pathways, maintaining old ones and expanding the range of movements you feel confident doing. 

Understanding that connection can also help protect you from injury, because your muscles, fascia and brain are all necessary to proper movement and body function. 

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