Imagine you come home from Muay Thai training where you learned a new combination, say, jab-cross-hook-kick. While you practiced the combo, you did not primarily exercise your muscles (core, triceps, quads, etc.), no. What you primarily exercised was your motor cortex.
Learning always happens in the brain. Practicing a physical skill is a matter of ingraining a motor pattern in your nervous system.
Now you probably know that when you exercise your muscles, they do not grow during training, but afterwards. Your muscles grow during rest, during recovery, during sleep. Learning a skill is similar. Your motor patterns develop not just during training, but particularly afterwards—during motor memory consolidation.
Motor memory consolidation consists of two stages:
- While you are still awake 10 minutes to 6 hours after training, your memory of the trained motor actions (e.g., of the jab-cross-hook-kick combo) stabilizes against interference from competing memories (e.g., some gossip you overheard at work or some chick you banged last week).
- When you go to sleep after training, the second stage sets in: an offline learning form of memory consolidation that improves your motor performance. In other words, unconscious processes in your brain ingrain the practiced skill or technique in your motor memory while you sleep.
What this means for becoming better in your sport and for winning competitions should be obvious: train hard and sleep well!
Still, this advice neglects the first stage of memory consolidation. What can you do during the waking hours between training and sleeping (besides eating nutritious foods) to get the most out of your training, to optimize your learning process, and to get an edge over your competition? Can you actively improve the motor memory stabilization phase?
Yes, according to a recent study by Immink (2016), you can. The study investigated the effects of post-training meditation on motor memory consolidation and found that 30 minutes of meditation after training promoted motor memory stabilization.
This was the experimental schedule:
- At 8 am, participants, who were experienced meditators, learned three motor sequences by pressing buttons on a computer for 60 minutes.
- At 12 noon, participants in the test group meditated for 30 minutes (yoga nidra style), while participants in the control group did light work duties for 30 minutes (like cooking, gardening, or housekeeping).
- At 5 pm, all participants completed a 20-minute test involving the three trained and two untrained motor sequences.
The results showed that participants in the meditation group did better at the final test: they reacted faster and executed faster. As this was significant only for the three trained sequences, meditation did not promote motor performance in general, but motor memory consolidation in particular. Naturally, if you do not train fighting in the first place, meditation will not make you a better fighter.
The takeaway message here is simple. Do not relax after training with mindless entertainment, but meditate a bit, at least for half an hour, because it will help your skill development and improve your athletic performance. Whether you want to be bigger, stronger, or faster, mindfulness meditation will not only give you a mental edge, but also a measurable physical advantage.
Personally, meditation also helps me to unwind faster after a hard evening sparring session by regulating my hormones. If you have to get up early on the next day, but your body is still full of adrenaline, keeping you from falling asleep, then good luck getting enough sleep to recover (and to benefit from the second stage of memory consolidation). Well, do not rely on luck, better sit down and meditate!
Immink, M. A. (2016). Post-training Meditation Promotes Motor Memory Consolidation. Frontiers in Psychology 7(1698), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01698.
- Improve Your Focus While Lifting Weights with This Tip
- Why I No Longer Listen to Music While I Work Out
- Why I No Longer Take Caffeine Before My Workouts
- MBSR Mindfulness Challenge – Part 1 [Introduction]
- How Meditation Makes Us Rebels
- 21 Ways to Misuse Mindfulness Meditation
- Taoism and Martial Arts: On Non-Doing and Fighting
- A Hard Workout Does Not Sap but Boosts Willpower