Want To Be A Better Athlete? Strengthen Your Brain

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When the messages from your brain are clear, fast, and accurate, everything gets better: strength, speed, agility, responsiveness, focus, decision-making, skill learning, coordination, and balance, to name a few. Elite athletes and peak performers with data from research in the fields of neurobiology and functional neurology are constantly tapping into their nervous system's potential to drive their athletic performance.

But how do you improve your neurological performance? It's a lot easier than it sounds—and luckily, everyone has a nervous system. Training it to respond more efficiently is something that can benefit anyone at any age. Here are four ways to make it happen:

1. Strengthen neural pathways with novelty.

The nervous system works by sending electrical pulses to and from all parts of the body via fiber tracts and nerves. The importance of movement to the body is expressed by the amount of brain space devoted to movement. When we try a new skill, there is an awkwardness to our actions until we become familiar with it.

Eventually, these tasks become second nature. This is because the nervous system adapts—we call this neuroplasticity. Now, neuroplasticity can be positive or negative. Therefore, as the saying goes, "perfect practice makes perfect." Neuroplasticity also follows the principle of "use it or lose it." One of the key factors in this is keeping the nervous system engaged.

Repeating the same exercise over and over even perfectly does not enhance the brain as optimally as if you were to include something unexpected, something novel. Unstable surfaces and full-body activation of muscle systems can accomplish this task most effectively—think working out on an unstable surface in bare feet.

2. Respect your fascia.

Fascia is a bodywide network of tissues that encases muscles, organs, nerves, blood vessels, lymphatics, internal organs, and glands. It wraps around tendons, weaves into ligaments and bones, and stabilizes joints. This net contains receptors that communicate with the nervous system and help to coordinate the movements of the body while constantly sending information back to the brain and spinal cord.

Many functions of the body previously attributed to the nervous system are actually related to fascia. Fascia contains 10 times more connections to the nervous system than any other part of the body. This system is what allows movement to be fluid and easy. When the gliding fluid between the layers of fascia becomes sticky and dense due to injury or inflammation, the layers of fascia stick together. This impairs movement, creating pain and disrupting communication with the nervous system. For this reason, maintaining your fascial system through exercise that includes variations in resistance including eccentric loading, plyometrics, and nonrepetitive activities is key to maintaining the health of the fascia.

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3. Go for flexibility without instability.

Flexibility is not a competition. Joints are protected by muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia, all of which can be stretched. Receptors in the joint structures and fascia are less likely to fire, compromising communication with the nervous system when stretched beyond their anatomical and neurological limit. The result is more instability, slowed response time, and a greater chance of injury.

The stretch should be utilized to prepare the muscles to activate fully and protect the joints influenced by the movement. It is best to stretch not with the intention of increasing flexibility but to influence the entire muscle, tendon, and fascia that coordinates the movement within the capacity of the joint. Repetitive movements and holding postures at and beyond their anatomical limit for more than 15 seconds puts the neuromuscular system at risk for not responding as quickly, potentially resulting in injury.

4. Challenge the nervous system by using multiple systems of information.

A plank engages the muscles of the upper body, lower body, and trunk. Adding an exercise ball and movement to the plank results in additional engagement of the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and motor cortex to maintain balance and strengthen the core. A workout that consists of only one or two kinds of resistance and repetitive movements on isolated muscles will limit the gains achievable on a muscular and neurological level.

Integrating multiple systems into one exercise can reduce training time and result in greater strength, balance, and neurological performance. Unstable surfaces, bare feet, and complex integrated movements are a few ways you can increase the number of sensory systems firing while adding some fun to your workout.

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