Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Progressing Past the Neurological Rut

Another old parkour article.  This one was special enough to make it to the Parkour Generations list of training articles.  Ever since then I've been famous ;-)

6 May 2009
One type of plateau that can occur in one's training was recently highlighted to me while I was trying to do something that I had been attempting for a number of months. Let me first describe the situation and what I did to achieve my goal, then I will give my thoughts on the process and hopefully explain better what I mean by a "neurological rut".

The challenge
I'm sure that all traceurs have progression markers that help them to gauge their progress in physical condition and skill. This could be the number of bricks of a particular wall that you can reach up to from a tic-tac/wall run, or it could be the amount of repetitions of a circuit you can do before you must reduce your speed significantly, or the number of your feet as a gauge of your precision distance.

The particular progress marker I'm considering today is the number of steps at a certain spot at Waikato Uni that I can jump up from a standing start - a sort of box jump. Well, for two years I have been hitting 5 steps with relative ease, but that sixth step has been too much of a jump (excuse the pun) for me to get too without some sort of momentum generating step prior to the jump.

The other day I was trying for 6 steps again. I was getting frustrated that I couldn't do it, even though I could really "feel" that it was possible. It occurred to me that for the last two years I had been getting used to jumping 5 steps, so I had to somehow break the instinctive leap that used to be my maximum.

I decided that, since I could get the sixth with a small step (matching my feet like a basketball "step-together-jump"), I would continue to take a step and then gradually reduce it's size. This seemed to work well, but there was too much of a mental leap between taking a small step and taking no step. So I thought of something else to try. Since the step worked well for me, I decided to keep it, but this time I tried increasing the pause once my feet came together so that eventually I would be doing a standing jump from rest. I thought that this might trick me into thinking I had momentum. After a couple of tries, and increasing the amount of time to a full 1 second (or more) pause, I got it!

After a couple of successful repetitions, a couple of failures, and a bit of listening to my body, I worked out that this method was helping me psych up and commit totally to the jump so that I would better use my maximum speed and strength. It didn't work every time but when it did I could feel the difference in the "explosion" of my muscles and in the angle of my flight path.

The Neurological RutIf you've heard the expressions "neurological pathways", "muscle memory" or something similar, you may have worked out where I'm going with this. Here's brief bit of background for those uninitiated with the terms.

When you learn a new skill, you develop links in your brain that allow you to remember and repeat the skill. Whether it is a new language, a new movement, or a new thought process, the more you practise this skill the stronger the neurological pathway gets and the more instinctive the skill becomes. As applied to physical movement, we often use the term "muscle memory" to describe the effect, though this is a bit of a misnomer since the memory is actually in your brain.

The neurological rut appears when one practises a skill enough that it becomes instinctive and then hard to break out of. Learning poor technique and not finding out that the technique is poor until years later would be one example of a neurological rut. My rut was jumping 5 steps. I had done thousands of jumps to the 5 step level over a couple of years and had not progressed because the gap between 5 and 6 steps was too much of a mental leap, even though the strength of my body had surpassed the level necessary for 6 steps some time ago. Putting it another way, my mind had grown so used to the technique of jumping 5 steps that it needed a significant effort, along with a trick or two, to break out of the neurological rut.

What can we learn?
I think my experience highlights the the importance of learning how to apply maximal effort, rather than developing muscle memory at one particular level of ability. Sometimes this neurological rut is unavoidable, as in the case of the steps, but with an increased awareness and some strategies for minimising the effects when it comes to progressing, it does not need to be a problem.

We can also see that the mind is a powerful tool, that when ignored can be a barrier to progression, but when understood (and appropriately fooled) can be a powerful ally. We must have our minds engaged in the development process.

It is also important to recognise that muscle memory is vital to learning instinctive application of skill. Without this instinct, real "flow" wouldn't be possible for example. So we shouldn't fear neurological ruts and we certainly shouldn't fear developing muscle memory. I wonder if it is possible to develop a neurological pathway that is good at overcoming neurological ruts, an adaptive skill perhaps. I'm almost certain that this can be done, but more experienced traceurs will have to comment on that I think.

A final thing to learn from this is that while your physical condition may increase, you won't know it until you have accomplished some feats that were beyond your previous level of physical ability.

Some strategies for overcoming your neurological ruts
In brief:
  1. Learn how to trick your mind to your advantage
  2. Visit new places with different obstacles
  3. Focus on maximal application of speed and strength
  4. Trust your instinctive ability when it insists that you can do something beyond what you've been able to do in the past.
To trick your mind it is important to be able to break a skill down into its basic components. You need to be able to analyse exactly what is happening in your mind, and if you are applying yourself enough. A good example of tricking the mind is a common method of speed training where the resistance of the movement is reduced to fire the muscles faster. When returning to the full resistance movement, the mind remembers the speed of firing the muscles at low resistance and reacts the same, giving a faster speed for the full resistance movement. You can also increase the resistance above normal so that you trick your brain into firing as hard as possible.

Visiting new places, or infrequently visited locations, can force you to rely more on that insistent instinct that tells you when you can complete the movement without having to measure it. You are not limited by familiar surroundings and reacting in familiar ways to those places you are used to. There is a danger to be aware of. Sometimes your brain will tell you that you can do a move, or jump a gap, when you really can't. I've been experiencing this a lot lately due to a couple of months where I've made a number of leaps forward in my physical progression. It is easy enough to get around once you are aware of it - take a second and a third look before you leap and the instinct normally rights itself. When the instinct is insistent, that's when I will try it!  I should also add that visiting new places and training with new people is a lot of fun and a great way to build the wider community spirit within parkour circles.

Taking note of your body and learning to apply maximum effort regularly will get you into good habits. Likewise, trusting your instinctive ability to know when you are ready to push the level up a notch will do the same thing. If the instinct isn't there, you might like to hold off on attempting something difficult too many times so that you don't develop the neurological pathway of failing at it.

So that's what a neurological rut is. I'm not sure if anyone has coined the term before, but many of the sport science resources I've read mention aspects of neurology as applied to sport, which means this isn't a totally uncommon area of knowledge. Consideration of neurological aspects of your training will definitely help your progression, and researching more about the brain in sport is a lot of fun. I hope this has been helpful.

Train hard!