The athlete’s brain

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

A few weeks ago, I came across this 5 year old article on athletes and their brains. Interesting topic. How is an athlete’s brain different than a non-athlete’s?

It should not be surprising if you think about it that it takes less processing power to perform a skill that you’ve been practicing for some time. You just know how to do it. It turns out that’s the case. There is far less brain activity required to perform a task when you practice it a lot than if you’re new to it.

Not surprising. A pro basketball player can dribble the ball without even thinking about it and simultaneously scan the court and decide what the best play to run would be. I, on the other hand, need to focus on dribbling or I’m going to dribble it off my foot.

Likewise, if you’re well practiced, you can also notice patterns earlier. I’ve heard a lot of talk recently of baseball hitters. If I recall, the hitter has to react to the pitch by the time the ball is not even halfway to the plate in order to have time to relay the message of whether to swing and where to the muscles and to perform the swing by the time the ball is at the plate. With practice, the batter can read the pitcher’s movements, as well as the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand, and predict fairly reliably where the ball will be well before it arrives.

Again, not surprising but an amazing skill if you think about it. Before the ball is even halfway to the plate, the batter knows where it’s going to be simply by watching the pitcher’s movements and the spin on a baseball that’s flying toward him at 90 miles per hour. This is a skill that a professional batter can do instinctively without even thinking about it (if he thinks about it, the ball is past him before he decides what to do).

So what does this have to do with runners? Well, we may not have a lot of complex skills we’re trying to learn but putting one foot in front of the other is not nearly as simply as you may think. It’s also not quite the same motor skill on paved surfaces as on unpaved surfaces. Practice really will make us more efficient and practice on the type of surface we will be racing on is important in maximizing that skill.

Also, I would argue that developing neuromuscular skills through activities like balancing exercises and form drills really can benefit us. If we becomes more efficient at these things that simulate running, that will also make us more efficient at running itself.

There are also benefits to the brain in doing these things. You’re wiring a more resilient brain. So get out there and do it. Work on your form drills and balance drills. You might find that both your running and your brain power will be improved.

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