Train your brain and your body will follow part 1 – Balance
We tend to focus a lot of energy on the body, but if you want to break through the next performance-block, you may need to move up the chain: it could be your brain holding you back. This 3 part series will delve into the inner workings of the nervous system and the brain, the main governing system of the body.
When it comes to performance, we want the nervous system to fire on all cylinders to give us the best output (strength, power, reaction times, speed). Let’s look at a few ground rules:
Ground rules of nervous system training
Use it, or lose it
Your brain is an extremely energy-efficient organ. If there are certain pathways in your brain that are not used for a while, your brain will repurpose them for something else. This rule applies to your muscles, but not everyone knows that it also applies to your brain. Example: If you have not played tennis in a while, you will not be as good, when you were playing regularly.
Your survival-instinct extends to maintaining safety first. This means, that if your brain doesn’t interpret the signals it receives as “SAFE”, it will create a feedback to your body to restrain your movement in favour of safety. As a result, your performance will decrease. If the nervous system senses threat from either of your senses, your performance or output will decrease. Example: If you are climbing a rock face and suddenly run out of options for grip. The body will clamp down, your muscles will become rigid and the rising panic is not helping this either. Obviously this is an extreme example, but you will stop moving.
Skills don’t transfer
There is a misconception that you can train a certain way and be good at most things, unfortunately this a one dimensional way of thinking. If you are a sprinter, you need to train sprinting, being more specific the 100m and then overload that specific skill to train it. Hardwiring it into the system, you have to repeat. Ever heard the saying, “repetition is the mother of all skill.” So train hard, train it often, to get the desired specific output or result. (Thirdly, by only training strength, you will not train balance, by only training balance, you will not train strength, got it? This is all very specific stuff and the way we train now a days is still one dimensional and skills are generally non transferable. Training for a specific skill, then train and overload it, so the skill becomes automatic.)
Train your grey matter to feel safe with your body’s movements, and harness the lightning speed agility of your nervous system, to get razor sharp focus and super human reaction times.
How your balance can sabotage your performance
Balance is often taken for granted. Just like breathing, it’s one of those things our bodies do without our conscious control. Most of us don’t struggle with walking across the street, transitioning from pavement to road, or shuffling to the bathroom at night. In fact, most of us don’t even think that we are constantly using our balancing skills to do these simple movements.
Why train your balance?
The number one cause for threat to the system is instability. If you are unstable in general or in one particular joint, there will be a threat. And since your brain is wired for ‘safety first’, it will clamp down on that instability and stop you from reaching your peak.
You’ll be able to move, and you may not even have any pain or discomfort, but you won’t be able to do any fancy on a balance beam, probably keep falling off for starters. A muscle is only as powerful, as the signal sent to it from the brain and therefore the quality of the contraction to produce an output. This instability is a red flag for the nervous system and is caused by improper muscle firing patterns. Would the body be ready to receive full power in an unstable area? NO!
The inner ear is responsible for keeping us oriented in the world, like a GPS system, keeping our eyes on the horizon. Inside the ear, these canals are full of fluid that swooshes around as we move our heads and lets us know which way is up or down. This is important to note, the movement of the head moves the fluid, therefore we need to train how we respond to the head movement. Balance is not trained by standing on a upside down bosu ball, nor on a balance beam. Your head needs to be moving around, not being kept still, then it’s just stability training. Balance is being able to control the unstable and unpredictable, being able to adjust all limbs and joints to overcome the instability. Not keeping yourself still on an unstable surface. Try this at home, please be near a wall or support: stand on one leg and then move your head, right to left and left to right. Very different from standing on an unstable surface and keeping the head still.
Let us recap: The inner ears are the organs of balance, to stimulate them we need to swoosh the fluid contained in them, around. The head being still, not moving around, in most ‘balance’ training exercises, will not do the job. Simple!
This system allows your body and brain, to understand where your limbs are in space and time or in the environment. Most of our common gym exercises, strength or mobility, are in this realm. The jury is out, with many differing definitions as what constitutes as proprioceptive training, from coach to coach. Basically we want to train these systems for better body control, in any given context and be able to handle it efficiently. Here are a few simple examples: The way you can tell an arm is raised above our head or that your eyes are closed or open.
Why proprioceptive training?
When it comes to moving well, with speed and control, and a general level of awareness. The proprioceptive system can enhance strength, increase joint control and improve your training gains. We want to train this systems capacity, preferably it’s endurance, to send clear messages to the brain and nervous system from the joints and tissues. Remember, the clearer the messages coming in (input) the better output we will have, for whatever variable we are training (strength, speed, endurance). For example: if we have limited hip mobility (ability to flex your hip, as you go down) on one hip, the joint receptors may not be activating at optimal level. Therefore, if these signals are poor, then the quality or amount of muscle contraction will be sub-optimal too. The joint receptors speak to the muscle receptors, poor conversation, poor joint mapping and then poor output = strength, speed, endurance.
All of your body is carefully mapped out in our brains, this map can be strong (large) or small. The smaller the map, means it has not be used as much and becomes dormant. Use it or lose it! The map can be woken up again, don’t worry. The smaller map will then naturally have a smaller operating system, sort of like a software programme. This means that it could be underperforming when doing a complex skill, like running, jumping etc. We want our maps to be clear and operating well, so we can handle what the environment throws at us or what we put ourselves through: jumping from a building, car chase or complex fight scene. Whatever you are in to, don’t mind me. To round off, this system can help or harm you over time. Think of being able to have lightning fast reflexes, incredible moves that keep your sparring partner guessing and increased strength gains session by session. This is what proprioceptive training has to offer.
More on the proprioceptive system anatomy
The proprioceptive system is composed of three distinct areas: The brain, the spinal cord, the peripheral nervous system (nerves going into your arms and legs). These nerves endings all contribute to make up the proprioceptive map. For example, the proprioceptors in the muscle are called muscle spindles. These sensors give signals to the brain and spinal cord, from the muscle, about changes in length or tension. Let’s look at a few of the common proprioceptors:
These types, although have many sub division, are the key receptors in sensing tension, speed of movement and angle or ‘shape’ of your movement. These signals are sent from the periphery (joints and limbs) to the brain, which help us predict the outside world.
These nerves endings sense changes in pressure. Looking mainly at the hands and feet, although there are many sub divisions here too. Our balance is influenced by the pressure in the feet and our ability to manipulate objects with great skill and finesse, in the hands is due to these receptors.
These are the most interesting of the group. We are now only making some sense of what pain really is. These sensors respond to damaging or potentially harmful threat signals to the spinal cord and brain. They are found in many areas of the body and are sensitive to heat, load, mechanical forces and even chemical stimulation.
This system operates subconsciously, you will not feel it operate on a daily basis or when it makes adjustments to your movements. Sometimes it is so fast, we term this reflexive!
Neurology of injury
Every experience, your nervous system is learning. It is assessing what is threat or non threat, and really only looking for fuel. We are pretty simple but are complex because of deeply mystifying consciousness. Just as you are sitting in your chair or looking at your phone, your body is reporting back to itself. I am sitting, I am safe, yes, that is what I am doing. Great!
What does this have to do with injury?
Well, in basic terms we are always remodelling and changing every day. If we do something long enough, we can do it really well after a few month and become highly skilled after a few years. Remember the body, brain and nervous system is ALWAYS learning, unfortunately sometimes bad habits creep, that is a learning experience itself. For example: Smoking, if it was such a threat, flight or fight would kick in and you wouldn’t get to light the cigarette at all. But we can, presto a bad habit in a few years. Now, the body is the information highway to the brain (processing unit), these signals are interpreted and then sent back as an output or desired experience to the body. A closed loop!
You get injured!
So keeping the information from above in your head, there is an injury that develops over time or it happens suddenly. During the phase of injury your body is learning that it is injured and giving out signals that you are getting injured, double whammy. It understands now, what to do to heal and what to do to warn you, keeping you away from further injury. This is where it gets interesting, the experience now, especially if it goes on for a long time, you experience pain/dysfunction as a ‘normal’ day to day thing. The signals start to change to cope with the new signals (pain, limited movement etc) and therefore you are actually learning to be in pain and dysfunction, that is why it is so hard for people to break the cycle of persistent pain because it has been left for too long or improperly rehabilitated. You have to help the actual physical body and then re-educate the nervous system to go back to original level.
You see, all the receptors and sensors of the body, explained above, are now affected by the injury and it is our job to restore balance to system first before going back out and performing or doing sports again. If we don’t repair these systems, you are more likely to re-injure yourself, develop compensatory movement patterns and not perform well.