Reaction time is an ability often overlooked in sport. It simply means how fast an athlete is able to respond to a stimulus. Think a sprint start in running, returning a serve in tennis or dodging a punch in a boxing match. But that’s not all it’s good for. Quick reaction time is required in almost all sports and in everyday life. And the good news is, it’s a strength that can be improved. So, if you’re someone who often trips over when you’re out running or never catches the ball playing team sports, read on to find out more about reaction time, how it evolves and what you can do to think and act faster.
Reaction time: where does it all start?
So what is reaction time? Our reactions are determined and controlled by our nervous system: The central nervous system (consisting of the spinal cord and brain) and the peripheral nervous system. Imagine our Free Athlete and professional biker, Steffi, in the following situation: She’s riding a mountain bike downhill and recognizes an obstacle in her way, which she now has to dodge. This signal goes from her visual sensors through the afferent sensorial neurons to the brain. These signals – also called electric impulses – are processed by the central nervous system and following this, a decision is made. Steffi‘s brain has assessed the situation and made the decision to steer to the right, since it’s flat and therefore the safer option to avoid the obstacle easily. The signal from the brain then goes through the efferent motoric neurons, which are connected to the muscles required to execute the instruction. You can probably imagine that when Steffi is travelling downhill at a rapid pace, this needs to happen fast. How fast? 100 meters per second: this would mean 10 seconds per kilometre, to be precise.
If you’re thinking right now: “I can’t even imagine how fast that is, but I know my reactions are not that fast” – don’t sweat it. Below you’ll find out how to speed things up.
Reactions and reflexes – the difference
Is there actually a difference between a reaction and a reflex? Our evolution equipped us with reflexes, which are used to protect us from things that can harm us. Reflexes are usually involved in a negative feedback loop, and act to help return the body to its normal functional stability. Since they need to happen faster than an actual reaction, the signals go directly through the spinal cord and do not involve our brain. In contrast, our reactions need to be processed through the brain first. While this is more time consuming, it makes more fine motoric movements possible.
Enough theory … time to act!
Improving performance through reaction speed
In certain sports (like martial arts) athletes specifically train their reactions to improve as much as possible so they can use it as a competitive advantage. So, how do they improve reaction time?
Processing the stimuli is something which can be trained, and consequently results in an improved reaction speed. Here are some tips on how you too can train your reaction time:
- Forest run: It’s all about training your brain to react to things. And running on uneven terrain is a great way to do this. Next time you’re planning to hit the treadmill, head outdoors instead and run through the forest or anywhere with an uneven ground, branches and stones which need a high visual and haptic process of signals. You’re definitely going to find it difficult at first, but the more you train your brain, the better it gets. Soon you’ll be flying over those obstacles.
- Sprints on signal: With the help of your fellow Free Athletes and training group, try to find a tarmac track and practice sprints on an explosive signal. Your body will learn to process stimuli in a faster way and and will adopt this ability in your daily life.
- Technique training: The Freeletics Training Coach takes technique sessions seriously – and there are a few good reasons why. One is that by practising exercises at a slow or moderate speed until you’ve got them down to a tee, your body gets used to the movements and remembers them. This means that when it comes to performing exercises as fast as possible in a God workout, your brain and body already know the drill and can execute the movements quickly and correctly.
- Plyometric training: These are exercises where your muscle exerts maximum force in a short time. The goal of these exercises is to increase power and help you improve your explosive strength. We included a lot of exercises like these in our Gods, like squats and split lunges.
So if you’re still questioning why you should practice your reaction speed, the simple reason is, you need it. Not just in sports but also in your everyday life. Especially when you get older, injuries can happen more often if you haven’t trained this ability enough.
Do it for your PB, do it for your performance, but most importantly…do it for yourself.