Training for a sport involves both muscle and cardiovascular work. What you may not know is that sport specific training also requires brain training. Motor control is a term used to describe how the brain controls the body’s movement. It does this with every move you make, without exception.
When you move any part of your body, your brain helps you plan the move, and decides which muscles need to be fired and how the optimum trajectory of movement will occur. Try a new move once and your skill will be less than ideal. Try it over and over again and the new skill will eventually improve and get perfected. Remember the first time you rode your bike, tried to ski, swung a golf club or typed at a typewriter? If you practiced these skills over and over again, you would get better at your chosen activity. Practice does make perfect. There is another part of the movement equation that helps with skill acquisition even further, and that is motivation. Interestingly, practice without motivation and interest does not produce the same results. Motor control is the brain telling your muscles to move. Practice and motivation allows the movement you’re doing to be improved and fine-tuned. We call this process motor learning.
How does this translate to the fitness and rehabilitation world? If you want to get better at a given sport or activity using the principles of motor learning, it is better to do movements in your exercise program that closely mimic the sport you are training for so that motor learning can occur. When you do this, you are improving your motor control, your brain’s ability to move your body for the desired sport. If downhill skiing is your chosen goal, then strengthening your quads using the leg extension machine may not be enough. Even lunges and squats, which are great overall leg strengthening exercises, may not be sufficient. Instead try squatting on an inclined surface, simulating the incline of a ski hill. Better still, make the incline surface unstable, to improve balance. If moguls and steeps are your passion, work on jumping and squatting, which are skills necessary when the steep or uneven terrain demands these body movements.
If road biking is your sport and winter cycling is not ideal, practicing on a road bike mounted on an indoor surface such as a computrainer, is far better than using a recumbent stationary bike. Keeping the exercise and equipment similar to the form you use in your sport is very helpful.
For optimum motor learning to occur, the muscles you are training should be utilized in the way they function in your sport, not in isolation or in non-sport specific movement patterns. Remember that to improve and train for a sport, you must train your muscles and your brain. Motivation is always a key element in making the training work resulting in long-term brain training results.
Train your brain, train the movement, train the muscles, be keen and practice. That’s the recipe for success in mastering your favorite sport.
Dr. Shelley Alper