Neural Darwinism: 31 Billion Ways to Get Faster in Triathlon

Speed and Endurance, Fast twitch and Slow twitch, Nature verse Nurture, Genetics verse Training.  We’re all born with a certain set of predetermined characteristics, but how predetermined are they, and what can be changed?  In the next series of blog posts for Peak Triathlon Coaching I look at brain development and how we can (and must) literally reprogram for speed.

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1.  Degeneracy:

During early development, our brain begins as a homogeneous grouping of neurons (about 31 billion or so) connected by an estimated one quadrillion synapses.  As we continue through the months leading to birth our brains begin to degenerate and become heterogeneous.  The prefontal, visual, and motor cortex are formed, once thought to be complete separate areas of the brain, are now  believed to be regions that merge seamlessly together by various specializations.  This process continues through childhood to a much lesser extent and has all but ended by the time we are adults.

2.  Synaptic Modification:

  Here is where the fun begins.  Throughout the different regions of the brain are areas that may be structurally dissimilar, but can ultimately perform the same actions.  Here, Darwin’s theory of evolution can be applied as regions of neurons in the brain fight it out to be the preferred “go to” by strengthening or weakening connecting synapses.  As that region becomes increasingly specialized, it is more and more probable that the brain will respond with that region for a specific action.

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3.  Reentry:

The synaptic modifications finally lead to reentry – or neural circuity, where the brain has specialized and has set preferred areas for every aspect of human consciousness, action, and thought.  Now this is where things become really interesting.  Currently, research suggests that that these specific regions may not be as set in stone as once believed.  Synapses are known to be highly unreliable in forwarding signals between neurons – once thought as a possible inefficiency, now may be more of a feature, allowing us to continually strengthen or weaken, prefer or remove, those regions of specialization.

So who cares!  Where are those billions of tips you promised?  Well, you already know them, or at least your brain does.

4.   Neuroplasticity:

 From my friends at wikipedia – “Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.  Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.

Here is a great analogy from Dr. Alvaro Pascuel-Leone in The Brain That Changes Itself, for how these pathway changerelate to skilled performance:

 

The plastic brain is like a snowy hill in winter.  Aspects of that hill–the slope, the rocks, the consistency of the snow–are, like our genes, a given.  When we slide down on a sled, we can steer it and will end up at the bottom of the hill by following a path determined both by how we steer and the characteristics of the hill.  Where exactly we will end up is hard to predict because there are so many factors in play.

“But,” Pascual-Leone says, “what will definitely happen the second time you take the slope down is that you will more likely than not find yourself somewhere or another that is related to the path you took the first time.  It won’t be exactly that path, but it will be closer to that one than any other.  And if you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down, at the end you will have some paths that have been used a lot, some that have been used very little.”

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And voila – we have our 31 billion ways to get faster – in reality it should probably even be one quadrillion ways, referring to the actual changing synapses.  In an interesting study (warning video games)  video game players who played the dark, fast-moving action-based game Call of Duty for 9 weeks were not only better at the game, but were able to see significantly more shades of gray, post-training, than a group who played a simulation strategy game that did not exercise those skills.  So not only was motor control developed but also greater visual clarity.

Every action we perform refines those connected synapses, but considering all the various possibilities, there more likely than not is continued constant variation.  Think of running along during a typical long run, then suddenly you take a different then normal stride, it may be better or worse, perhaps it was the result of a different grouping of neurons and synapses in the brain.  Imagine a swimmer who always drops their elbows for every stroke.  Now think of the region of the brain where the synapse have been focused to make this happen.  As coaches, it is our job to rip those synapse apart and redirect the path to keep those elbows high.  All of this simply reinforces that practice makes perfect and imperfect practice does the same, imperfectly.

But! it’s actually not that simple either – maybe practicing the same thing but in different ways, in different environments, is key to reinforcing or redirecting the many places in the brain a certain set of actions occurs.  This is where my mind gets blown – A discussion over at Axon Sports (http://www.axonpotential.com/) between several commenters considers the above question.  From commenter Brian McCormick:

“Is perfect practice the answer? There are other theories just as differential learning and nonlinear pedagogy that support the idea that athletes should engage in a wide array of skill executions and increase the number of degrees of freedom because by widening the scope of the practice, they are more likely to find the execution that best fits their anatomy, physiology, etc.

Thinking of the study on the London cab drivers. Is their practice perfect? Is it perfect compared to the bus drivers who drive a pre-defined route? It is essentially the difference between routine expertise and adaptive expertise. The cab drivers, by trying new streets, develop a flexible and adaptive expertise. The bus drivers never err on their route, but their route is not always the best one – what if there is a traffic jam, an accident, a street closure? They can execute their routine with great automaticity, but not the flexibility to deal with these new constraints.

If the cab drivers stick to the conventional path and take the main streets, they are unlikely to make any errors, but they also have a shallower pool of experience from which to draw when a new problem arises. It is only through exploration, not perfect practice, that the cabbies develop the new and varied pathways which make them experts at their job.”

and answer from commenter Matthew Berenc  –

“You are absolutely correct, the experience gained by being involved in multiple situations allows the brain to be able to adapt to a wider variety of situations and react appropriately, this will only make the athlete more successful. But this still can apply to the perfect practice scenario. To continue with the cabbie example, they gain great adaptive ability by being able to explore different routes and learning which is the best at which time of day but they still need to drive the car perfectly. If they are constantly trying to drive with the emergency brake on or shift directly in to 2nd gear, the car isn’t going to last long or go very fast. The same with a football player, he needs to learn multiple plays and react to different scenarios but he still needs to practice those scenarios perfectly. Otherwise, he would reinforce a learned habit of imperfect play for a wide variety of situations.”

This variability in practice may be the key to break through that plateau – by constantly changing routines, environments, and effort – you create additional pathways to perform a reaction, thus increasing the probability of success.

My next blog post will focus on how we here at Peak are using these methods to push through our athlete’s barriers, and ultimately lead to literally reaching the peak of your performance, and beyond!

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