How Can Brain Plasticity Improve Your Marathon Time?
I recently read a great article in Runners’ World called The Running Machine Myth. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in how your brain plasticity processes can shape and affect your physical training goals, and how you can approach training to best apply your brain’s natural ability to grow and change. The world class athletes, coaches, and neuroscientists in the article all agree that in doing so, you can push training to the next level and even improve your marathon time or sprint time.
As author John Kiely astutely observes, “We once believed running skill was optimized by monotonously replicating movements the same way, over and over. Today it’s clear that coordination thrives not on regimentation, but on exploration. Accordingly, the goal of coordination training is not to imprint formulaic technical solutions but to build flexible problem-solving responsiveness.”
Some early examples of this evolution are things like the variation of running barefoot or on different types of surfaces or elevations. But Kiely mentions another aspect of this development, saying, “One recent breakthrough has emerged not from the sports sciences, but through advances in brain imaging technology. In particular, 40 years of research by University of California San Francisco neuroscientist Mike Merzenich has illuminated how neuroplasticity changes across the lifespan. In youth, we learn effortlessly. Everything is new, and all experiences leave an imprint. As we mature, this explosive plasticity fades. We may still reconfigure neural architecture, but now simple repetition is no longer sufficiently stimulating to drive ongoing refinement… The key to triggering continued plasticity is surprisingly straightforward. Our brains are perpetually bombarded from multiple sensory sources by overwhelming torrents of information. Some of this information is important, some simply ongoing background interference or “noise.” The brain cannot possibly respond to all incoming data (precious neural building materials would be instantly depleted), and so from this flood of sensory information, the brain must identify the cues most relevant to continued survival… To accomplish this task, the brain uses a simple but powerful trick: It pays attention. Attention is the spotlight directed by our consciousness to highlight important stimuli.”
In his book Soft-Wired, Dr. Merzenich discusses that from a brain plasticity perspective, there are actually incredibly different long-term brain and body health outcomes from different types of exercise. For example, he explains, “There is strong literature showing that good, physical aerobic exercise is very good for your brain. Unfortunately, in many of its forms, the modern gym does not do a good job of helping us exercise and re-grow our brain’s control of our actions in the world… to the extent to which they embed movement stereotypy, or anything short of whole-body coordination, they can contribute negatively to your neurological control or recovery of movement. A large part of the problem with mobility, balance, stiffness, or agility actually lies with the controller of those faculties–the brain.”
So what, specifically, can you do to improve your training and progress? Merzenich notes that both rewards and surprise are triggers for the brain to learn and change. So giving yourself a reward (in your mind) for achieving a milestone or improving your stride can help drive lasting brain change. Changing your running route and paying more attention to things you encounter on the route will also strengthen your body and mind in a mutually beneficial, cyclical way. Merzenich specifically recommends “progressive, non-stereotypic exercise strategies that gradually recover precision and control, and that progress in training at speed” and suggests including “postural variations and weights” to add “richness and variability to [any] movement or exercise program.”