Using Neuroscience to Train Smarter, Not Harder

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

By Jane Ehret, Swimming World Contributor & Medical Student, St. George’s University, Class of 2020.

Most everyone knows the phrase “train smarter, not harder,” however, this is often easier said than done.  Yes, muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness are crucial to athletic performance, but in a sport like swimming, body mechanics is the ultimate limiting factor. Taking physical fitness out of the equation, you’re only as good as your technique. So with technique and body mechanics at the core of performance, how exactly can you train smarter? Lets go to the source: your brain.

How does the brain and neuroscience impact training?

The secret to improving your performance in the pool can be explained by a scientific phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the physical changes that occur in your brain in response to repetition. It’s how you remember what you learn in school or how you never forget to ride a bike. In reference to motor activity, neuroplasticity is basically a fancy word for muscle memory. However, the term “muscle memory” is actually a misnomer implying that muscles themselves can actually store memories. A memory is nothing more than a series of electrical impulses between neurons that create recognizable patterns, therefore, to acquire a new skill, it takes repetition to physically change the synaptic connections in your brain that instruct your muscles to move as desired.

For a better understanding of how to incorporate your brain’s normal physiology into training, let me briefly explain how the motor system works. Within your frontal lobe is an area called your pre-motor cortex, which is where you consciously plan to execute a movement. The neurons in this area send electrical signals to the neurons in another region called the motor cortex. From there, these signals are relayed to neurons in the spinal cord that will then signal to the motor neurons attached to your muscle fibers. Once the muscle fibers have received this message, they contract and relax as they are instructed. Deeper within the brain are several additional areas called basal ganglia that coordinate to fine tune these movements. Repeated activation of this circuitry is how you learn to acquire a new skill and explains why it takes repetition for it to become second nature.

What I’ve discussed so far only explains textbook facts about neurophysiology. Now let’s apply this knowledge on a more practical level. It’s easy to practice good technique by doing drills during warm-up or recovery sets. But when the intervals get tight and the pressure is on to keep up, the focus to maintain those skills fades away. And this is completely natural. As discussed, it takes repetition for new skills to become second nature. During a hard workout as your body fatigues, this conscious effort to practice new skills gets overpowered by the instinct to survive. Just like that, the technique you perfected during warm up goes right out the window.

So the big question is this, with limited time how can we effectively improve technical skills without compromising physical conditioning training? Mental rehearsal is an overlooked trick that if employed correctly, can be the solution.

Scientific advancements have allowed us to monitor brain activity which is how we know what areas of the brain are activated under different circumstances. This is how we know which areas are responsible for coordinating movements. Interestingly, these same exact areas are activated when simply visualizing such movements. This finding can become a secret weapon not only for swimmers but for anyone wishing to perfect a new skill.

As discussed before, it is the activation of the neural circuits that creates the neuroplasticity required for a skill to be honed. The muscle fibers themselves have very little to do with the acquisition of such skills and thus do not necessarily need to be activated to do so. WIth that being said, simply mentally rehearsing your desired skill set can be just as effective as physically performing it. Furthermore, the lack of true physical action eliminates the component of fatigue disrupting the ability to maintain proper technique. I’m not saying to completely replace active technique work in lieu of mental visualization practices. But by incorporating mental rehearsal into your daily training regimen you can efficiently strengthen the neuronal circuitry to make the technical changes you desire.

The science is complex but the conclusion is simple. By learning to use your body’s natural mechanisms of adaptation, you can literally train smarter not harder.

8 comments

  1. avatar
    Tim Olsen

    Spot on Jane!

  2. Melissa Webb

    Isaak Webb and Madeline Webb you both will enjoy this read.☺️

  3. avatar

    Thanks for this lovely article.

    We may go even a step further, if we follow the results described in this paper :
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868452/

    How about exploring the following: what if gaining muscular strength was partly a result of strengthening the nervous system? This may lead to designing the training in a way that is consistent with the adaptation of the nervous system, not only learning but also some kind of recruiting more neurons to avoid fatigue.

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