There are many puzzle pieces that need to fit together in order to be successful and achieve your athletic goals. Whether you are looking for a competition level performance in endurance sport or to hit your next strength goal, it requires a huge amount of time, effort, and physical capacity. To perform at your desired level, you need the physical capability to generate speed, strength, and power, all while maintaining a high degree of sport specific skills and proficiency. Most of these skills and qualities are developed through periodized training, putting in the training time and effort and appropriate recovery.
However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that cognitive sportstraining can also play a role in sports performance enhancement. Cognitive sports training encompasses a broad range of mental tasks designed to improve various aspects of athletic performance. We’ve all had those moments when you didn’t think you could run one more step or lift one more rep but somehow you are almost always able to do so. So much of our sport performance is psychological, so it makes sense to support that aspect of your training as well.
Cognitive training tasks are used to improve psychological factors such as mindset, self-efficacy, self confidence, motivation, and mental toughness. Cognitive sports training can also be used to enhance skill development and execution, resulting in improved technical proficiency within your sport. This increase will allow you to adapt to changing scenarios and ultimately perform to your best capability no matter what you are faced with.
Let’s look at the 3 main types of cognitive training:
- Mental Imagery
- Mindfulness and meditation
Mental imagery is the process of mental execution of a movement or sports specific action without any actual physical movement or muscle activation. You can use this method to repeatedly perform specific motor skills for your sport. These mental repetitions improve the efficiency of those skill-related neural pathways, improving athletic performance.
Self talk is the process of talking to yourself to reinforce confidence, technique, self-belief, motivation, mental resilience; it can also change your mood. This technique can accelerate the learning of new skills, reduce performance-related anxiety, and develop motivation and resilience. You are likely already working hard physically to achieve your goals, so wouldn’t it be great if you could also talk to yourself to help get you there as well.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation strategies are used to improve mood, increase emotional well-being, stave off feelings of depression and anxiety, and increase sensations of confidence and self-worth. The focus is on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. The goal is not to focus on how the last kilometer of your run went or what is coming up next but how you are managing the moment that you are in. How do you feel, what can you control right here and now? Looking at your own game, race or movement and not what is going on with others, saves energy and puts you in complete focus and control of how you need to move your body to achieve your goal.
So, we know that you must actually physically perform your chosen sport. You need to train in a method that is periodized to allow for maximum adaptation and appropriate recovery. And that it is important to train your brain to help you get the most out of your body. But that’s not all, we also need to consider how to nourish our brain to allow for these cognitive adaptations.
Nutrition helps our bodies to achieve the tasks and goals we’ve set for ourselves. For a review on how to fuel for performance click here. But what does nutrition do for our brain, cognition and ultimately sport performance?
When we take in nutrition before, during and after activity, we provide the body with glucose, the sugars we need for energy during exercise, as well as proteins and carbohydrates to help with longer-term activity and recovery. On top of supporting our body to be active, we also need to support our brain. The brain is a very metabolically active organ, using approximately 20% of total body energy, so it is important to fuel your body as well as your brain. Your body breaks carbohydrates into glucose, which it uses to fuel brain activity. You can also break protein down into glycogen, which can also be used for fuel by the brain, but not as efficiently as glucose. The foods you eat also affect your brain’s ability to produce and metabolize neurotransmitters, and consuming a few key nutrients helps maintain neurotransmitter function. This network of communication allows for a range of nervous system functions — including muscle control, learning and memory, and regulating your heart rate and body temperature. Consuming a few key nutrients helps maintain neurotransmitter function:
Protein helps you build lean muscle, maintains tissue strength, and also aids in neurotransmitter production. As you digest your meals, protein is broken down into its individual amino acids and one amino acid, tyrosine, is used to make the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which stimulate your nerves and cause you to feel alert. Another amino acid, tryptophan, has the opposite effect on your brain and it calms you down and makes you feel drowsy.
Vitamin C is found in many fruits and vegetables and also plays a role in synthesizing dopamine and norepinephrine. Vitamin C also offers other neurological benefits such as protecting your brain cells from oxidative damage that would otherwise impair brain function.
B-Complex Vitamins are a family of eight nutrients found in a wide range of foods that also support neurotransmitter production. Vitamin B-5 helps you make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter important for muscle function, while vitamin B-6 aids in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that boosts your mood. Vitamins B-12 and B-9 allow your brain to metabolize neurotransmitters, helping to control the levels of neurotransmitters found in your brain tissue.
There is also a correlation with well balanced nutrition and brain plasticity, synaptic function, memory, and physical structure of the brain. As we perform our sport in training and during competition, we want to support our cognitive function to perform at our best. You want to be able to take inn information, process it and make the appropriate decision as quickly as possible. If we focus on proper nutritional and dietary habits, we will better retain the information gained during a training session and will learn more in a shorter amount of time. This will allow you to gain physical, technical, and mental focus from each training session.
Another important reason for well balanced nutrition is to limit your potential of Central Nervous System (CNS) fatigue. The CNS Fatigue Hypothesis states that fatigue is governed by the central nervous system, and not the muscles themselves, suggesting that the fatigue is coming from the brain. I know that I have experienced this from poor nutrition and/or lack of sleep or appropriate recovery. I’ve noticed that my muscles feel fine and I’m ready to do the desired training session, but I just can’t get my legs to turn over. My rate of perceived effort is high, but my heart rate is low and there is no amount of gels or energy drink that is going to get me going. So, we have a physical explanation of reducing fatigue; that is, proper nutritional habits will allow more energy for the tasks you set for your body. We also have a potential explanation of cognitive fatigue that may be influenced by nutrition.
In order to properly train as an athlete, it is important to note what is going into your body and to make sure you have enough of everything. You want to think about proper nutrition, nutrient timing, periodized training, adequate recovery, adequate sleep, and supporting your brain as much as your body to perform at your desired level.
Foods to Support Your Brain and Performance
This type of fish includes salmon, trout, albacore tuna, herring, and sardines, all of which are rich sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. The composition of your brain is about 60% fat, and half of that fat is comprised of omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids also play a role in sharpening memory and improving mood, as well as protecting your brain against cognitive decline.
Green, leafy vegetables
Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. Research suggests these plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline.
Blueberries and other dark colored berries deliver anthocyanins, a group of plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Antioxidants act against both oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions that can contribute to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases. And as we know, exercise can contribute increased levels of oxidative stress and inflammation.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it can directly enter the brain and act as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound. Curcumin boosts serotonin and dopamine, both of which improve mood.
Broccoli is rich in brain-healthy antioxidants like vitamin C and flavonoids. Broccoli also contains compounds called glucosinolates, which the body breaks down into compounds called isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates can lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Other cruciferous vegetables that contain glucosinolates include:
- brussels sprouts
- bok choy
Nuts are excellent sources of protein and healthy fats, and one type of nut in particular might also improve memory. Walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Diets rich in ALA and other omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to lower blood pressure and cleaner arteries. That’s good for both the heart and brain.
Pumpkin seeds contain powerful antioxidants that protect the body and brain from free-radical damage. They’re also an excellent source of magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper.
Each of these nutrients is important for brain health:
- Zinc. This element is crucial for nerve signaling. Zinc deficiency has been linked to many neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is essential for learning and memory. Low magnesium levels are linked to many neurological diseases, including migraine, depression, and epilepsy.
- Copper. Your brain uses copper to help control nerve signals. And when copper levels are out of whack, there’s a higher risk of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
- Iron. Iron deficiency is often characterized by brain fog and impaired brain function.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are packed with a few brain-boosting compounds, including flavonoids (a group of antioxidant plant compounds), caffeine, and antioxidants. The flavonoids in chocolate gather in the areas of the brain that deal with learning and memory. Chocolate is also a legitimate mood booster for me.
Studies have shown that having higher levels of vitamin C in the blood was associated with improvements in tasks involving focus, memory, attention, and decision speed.
As is the case with coffee, the caffeine in green tea can boost brain function, improve alertness, performance, memory, and focus. Another important component of green tea is L-theanine, an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps reduce anxiety and makes you feel more relaxed. It’s also rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that could protect the brain from mental decline.
Well, now you have some food for thought. I hope you practice positive self talk to reinforce confidence, technique, self-belief. Take some time for mental imagery to see yourself executing your sport well and with precision. And load your plate with a variety of brain boosting foods to support your dedication to hard work and smart training.
Train well and empower yourself.
Strength and Conditioning Coach