Can training your nerves improve athletic performance?

In the last post I asked Why train your nerves? It was a precursor to explaining the value of a healthy and strong nervous system to athletic performance.

In fact it is little known that the reason sedentary people improve so much when they begin exercising is because their nervous system adapts very quickly. The reason for the inevitable plateau is that the rest of the body takes much longer to adapt. So improvements then reflect the normal pace of change within the body.

Nerves adapt quickly

The specific reason for such vast improvements when people return to activity is pretty much down to nerves triggering muscles. Muscles, bones, ligaments and nerves don’t grow particularly fast so of course improvements couldn’t come from new growth. Instead muscle output and thus strength, endurance and other athletic measures depend on good coordination of all the systems involved. So the big improvements come from the coordination of muscles and at a much smaller level muscles are broken down into groups of muscle cells controlled by motor units which are groups of nerves that tell the muscle cells when to fire.

Coordinated patterns

Despite how it looks and feels it is rare for the whole of a muscle to contract (fire) at once. The reality is that each unit of muscle cells fires at a specific time aiming to produce a pattern of firing that leads to the desired result. Muscles that haven’t been used often therefore become lax at achieving and maintaining the specific firing patterns that are required. They know what to do but are out of practise. We can all relate to that. Specifically they are unable to achieve the exact pattern of firing required but they also tire sooner. They seem to run out of energy.

Lack of nerve

The evidence is that energy for the muscle to move is still there and if triggered it will move. The problem lies with the trigger system. The nerves are simply not able to trigger the muscles for long enough.

I studied sports science at university yet this explanation wasn’t part of my course. I found it delving deeper into books I found. The single point of failure was always assumed to be the muscle even though all the evidence pointed elsewhere.

So of course I’ve been waiting to take this insight further and share. That time has now come.

Muscle output: Is it neural?

An experiment we undertook during my studies at Loughborough taught me early on that it wasn’t muscle fatigue or presence of lactic acid that limited performance despite common knowledge saying otherwise.

We completed some experiments with repeated sprints and measured lactic acid and muscle output from repeated 30 second sprints on a stationary bike. Each participant was a sports science student, fitness wasn’t tested but assumed to be normal or above average.

What has always stuck in my mind was that the participants could always produce more power and muscle output in the second sprint compared to the first. This defies the logic that Lactic acid hinders performance because the second sprint always occurred with much more Lactic acid travelling through the individuals system. So, at least in this experiment Lactic Acid concentration didn’t impede exercise power output.

I was weight training from an early age so I was familiar with having more strength and power in my second set of work than my first and this experiment opened my eyes as to why. I had heard before that Lactic acid doesn’t have the impact that it’s famed for. Not in sprinting and power activities at least.

So I had always wondered if the nervous system had a greater role to play. Over time I have found articles and experiments indicating that the ability of nerves to do their job is the defining factor in performing a skill assuming someone is proficient.

This is based on these three statements:

  1. Do muscles fatigue as quickly as thought?
  2. If not Something else is the weakpoint. What is it?
  3. Does the ability of nerves to trigger muscle activity determine muscle output?

The problem is that I found much of this research before I knew about the internet. So my challenge now is to ask these questions again and see what I find.

Fitness: Could your brains ability to harness energy explain age related mental decline?

Everyone seems to assume that your mind must degrade with age. I’ve never seen convincing evidence for that. I simply see that increasing age requires increasing maintenance since our parts and code get old. In otherwords,

You are only as old as the lifestyle you live. 

So it is that I am good at finding evidence that shows this to be true. There is increasing evidence that
Age-related cognitive decline is linked to the energy available to synapses in the prefrontal cortex. The study’s senior author, John Morrison, PhD explains this more clearly

“We are increasingly convinced that maintenance of synaptic health as we age, rather than rescuing cognition later, is critically important in preventing age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease,”

So the experts are finding that our brain structures don’t die off as much as we thought. The real problem is that the brain needs energy to keep its traffic flowing because neurons need energy to transfer signals. As people age our current lifestyles lead them to become inefficient in accessing their available energy stores. So less energy is made available to support brain traffic.

The authors sum up the finding neatly

Working memory requires the energy-demanding activation of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex through the complex arrangement of the synapses that interconnect nerve cells.

In short. Synapses need lots of energy to work properly. Without that energy they start to fail.

If you have been following this blog you may start to understand why I believe that the health of our bodies reflects an energy economy. Financial economies suffer when money flows slowly. Cashflow is everything and individual businesses fail simply because cash flow isn’t handled properly.

In the same vain life is all about energy flow and individual humans suffer problems when they manage their energy poorly.

The best way to fix problems like this is to be more active. With the mind you need both physical and mental activity. The reason is simple. Your brain loses functionality because it can’t tap into the energy resources around it. This happens primarily because you don’t use your brain enough and so it hasn’t kept up its sharpness. It’s literally become unfit. So you have to train it by using it.

Over time the parts that were slack are forced to get back up to speed. It’s obviously much more technical than that but that is what ultimately why the term use it or lose it was coined.

It’s Not Memory Loss – Older Minds May Just Be Fuller of Information

So, It’s Not Memory Loss – Older Minds May Just Be Fuller of Information is the kind of finding that makes sense to me. I’ve met plenty of older peeps whose memory is just fine. They can remember all sorts of stuff they do regularly. though as you would expect, they can get confused by all the other information they have to sort through. 
I’ve noticed the same each time I play tennis at lunch!!! In the first set calling the score is easy. Everyone can do it. Later on though mistakes start occurring. We can’t agree if it’s 30-40 or 40-30. We run through the points that have just been played. You know how it goes. 

Deja vu

Though a knowledge of psychology makes it easier to understand the problem. The scoring system in tennis encourages repetitive score lines and essentially Deja Vu. You have to really use your memory well in order to keep an exact track of events because by the end of a match every possible score line is likely to have occurred and thus each scoreline will feel relevant or at least recent. So figuring out what happened only a few shots or points ago starts to become a bit muddled. This happens independent of the age of the players.
The study reports:

older adults’ performance on cognitive tests reflects the predictable consequences of learning on information-processing, and not cognitive decline.

The point here is that this happens to any one for predictable and standard reasons. For younger people new information has no or little conflict with what they already know. For older people most things conflict or update what they already know. So they can start to get confused about what is the correct version of information they need to use or present right now. 

Computer memory has the same problem!!!

This is actually the exact same reason a computer gets slower over time and use because at first there is only so much information stored in its memory (hard drive). So it’s really easy to find what is needed or know that it’s not there. 
Over time more of the memory gets used and much gets changed and over written. So things become really cluttered. In fact your computer memory often starts breaking apart whole chunks of information and storing them separately. Putting it all back together when needed. As you can imagine this requires a lot of administration and effort. Taking time and slowing things down. The complexity also means more can go wrong. Details of where memories and their parts are stored can get lost or broken. 

Organising and accessing information

If this sounds like your human memory I think it’s because the principles are essentially the same. Organising and accessing a lot of information is obviously much much harder than organising and accessing a lot less information. 

the larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word (or pair)

 So I like this article It’s Not Memory Loss – Older Minds May Just Be Fuller of Information because it fits what I have seen all my life and also what I see in technology. The same problems generally have the same solutions. It also makes me feel more positive about my memory as I age. Something to support what I believed anyway.

A well honed body and mind

Though I still feel it’s important to keep fit because what your body can do reflects what your brain can do. If your body isn’t fit and thus fast, strong and well honed then why would your brain be. All the evidence points to fitness affecting the whole body not just individual parts.

In fact, the new study is not likely to overturn 100 years of research, cognitive scientists say. Neuroscientists have some reason to believe that neural processing speed, like many reflexes, slows over the years; anatomical studies suggest that the brain also undergoes subtle structural changes that could affect memory.

A good night of sleep is like hosing down your filthy brain

Why animals sleep remains one of the enduring mysteries of biology, but new research suggests the primary reason might be to allow cerebrospinal fluid to wash all the gunk out from between your brain cells.

Read more

The researchers interpretation is that this is literally a cleaning process after a busy day. I would wonder if it’s also a restocking process. Clearing out the clutter from the brain cells but also providing fresh nutrients and items not so easily replaced while the brain is in use.

I just found a TED presentation that describes this research even further and exploring the idea I suggested.

Jeff Iliff: One more reason to get a good night’s sleep

The question of course is how to get good quality sleep? I get the impression from the presentation that new drugs will be the solution but why not just use movement in your daily life to improve the quality of your sleep.

How activity and exercise improves your health

Child running around a wet play area

For years we have been told that exercise is good for us. Now the evidence is becoming indisputable.  Being inactive is as bad as smoking or drinking too much alcohol. It could even be more serious than that.

Over the years I’ve found so much information I didn’t know what to do with it. I mainly shared it through my original blog or kept it private hoping to share it when I found the right approach. For many of these articles I’ve now been waiting years which just isn’t helping anyone.

I recently realised my blogs are the perfect medium on which to share because I’m most interested in the discussions and debate around this topic. I don’t feel I have the answers, I share because I’m interested in learning and using what I learn to help me on my journey through life.

I have now started to organise all I have found and it’s re invigorating my dreams because the message really is about living your life. The act of living itself is what we must do. Moving is living. Activity to me isn’t just physical it is mental and emotional. Thinking about things makes your brain active, experiencing emotions involves both your brain and your body.

For now most information will be about physical activity because that is what is most available. Though I am looking for and finding interesting articles in all three areas. Over time this and all the other posts will grow as I continue this life journey.


For now I’m creating a series of articles covering the various topics related to activity and health. So far I have published:

Key articles

Activity is so useful throughout life that I’ve also compiled a list of the main articles worth reading to build your general knowledge.

Useful Reading

Here is more useful information

Can you train your emotions

I’ve been meaning to write this article for a long time but never felt I had the time to do it justice. Now I just feel I have waited too long so I need to put my first draft together and then build it over time.

A recent article Size, connectivity of brain region linked to anxiety level in young children is useful because it provides some evidence that our day to day experiences influence the development of our brain. Of course that is not particularly surprising. What I want to do is look at the insight in a different way than is discussed in the article. The idea that you can control how your brain and emotions develop much like you can train your body. That is kind of a crazy notion but actually something that my training and articles like this indicate is possible.

In the same way you cannot create muscle or tendon where there is none you can’t create new sections of brain or emotion. But you can enhance what is there. So too with the brain and emotions. If you spend your life focusing on being calm and relaxed it stands to reason that your brain and emotional system will connect strongly in the areas required to be calm. If you spend your life getting stressed then your body will see this as a training stimulus and develop the areas to support your stressed lifestyle.

It is this way of thinking that I feel can help you get control of your mind and emotions and make them work for you.

The findings of the study are:

Prolonged stress and anxiety during childhood is a risk factor for developing anxiety disorders and depression later in life. Now, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that by measuring the size and connectivity of a part of the brain associated with processing emotion—the amygdala they can predict the degree of anxiety a young child is experiencing in daily life.

They found that

the larger the amygdala and the stronger its connections with other parts of the brain involved in perception and regulation of emotion, the greater the amount of anxiety a child was experiencing.

How Much Glucose Does Your Brain Really Need?

I understand that our brains can only obtain energy from sugar. The can’t get it from protein and fat like the rest of our body. So when I found an article considering How much glucose does your brain actually need? I knew I needed to make a record for future reference.

This is something I learnt through bio psychology and my PE A Level. Over time I have developed a theory that I feel can explain both why migraines occur and from this who you can do to help prevent them. The concept is relatively simple but, to understand it fully, it helps to know more about how your body and brain work then your average person. The idea is that peak performance, or the physiology of maximum intensity exercise as it was termed at university, has a lot to do with your bodies ability to manage its resources, particularly water and sugar. Essentially the most improvement in athletic achievement comes from sparing sugar and using water well. If the brain can only use sugar and being fit ensures your body is efficient with sugar making it last longer then being unfit will do the reverse leading to insulin resistance and basically letting you run out of sugar. That would tire your brain and potentially hurt it leading to pain. Just like any other part of the body.

In reality it is more complex than this but hopefully the essence makes sense. If you really do consider your brain like a muscle then training it like one will help prevent injuries. If you consider headaches as an injury and migraines as a severe injury then you could formulate a plan to reduce the pain causing dynamic that leads to them. It’s just a theory but since there is no cure for migraine and it is excruciating and debilitating I feel that anything with a hope of working is worth trying.

The detail I will add later. If you want to know more please add a comment. For now I’m just stating my intentions. There is a lot more detail and research I have found that I can add and flesh out the idea.

So I share this article now as a background providing a general understanding of the brain with the potential to understand how this could lead to a migraine.

The boy whose brain could unlock autism

I just came across this beautifully written article The boy whose brain could unlock autism and I am totally captivated so I had to share it.

My long term dream is to see a Virtual Human created so wee can all understand the wonder of ourselves in amazing depth. This article not only introduces a whole new theory on the brain providing a revolutionary theory on Autism. It is also about the man behind the Big Brain project so it si directly focusing on a key organ for a virtual human, a virtual mind.

I haven’t finished the article yet because it is quite long. I just had to ensure I had a record of it first.