Muscle memory is defined as “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” For example, a newborn baby has no muscle memory, a blank slate. The only way for a baby to learn to crawl, sit up, and walk is to do these things, practice (with a great deal of failure), and then gradually become skilled at each. This process is achieved by building neural pathways that give the muscles a sense of memory. In other words, without thinking the baby can crawl, sit-up, and walk because the muscles are completely accustomed to this process. The neurons communicate with the muscles and say, “crawl now”, and the body knows how to do it. For athletes, “muscle memory”, is an unconscious process. The muscles learn certain types of movement in training. This is important when training for different sports. But what happens if the athlete develops neural pathways that inhibit the ability to perform with the appropriate technique? Bad habits and injury can damage and disrupt the associated muscle memory that has been established.
How does this pertain to the sport of triathlon?
Muscle memory is great if the athlete is creating pathways that will allow them to perform with ease and comfortability. To avoid injury and be successful in the sport. All too often when working with athletes, I spend time trying to reroute those pathways to become more efficient and better skilled. Knowing that repetition is the “mother” of skill and that “practice makes permanent”, some athletes have practiced their sport for years, creating pathways that reinforce incorrect technique. They have reinforced bad habits. Essentially doing their homework wrong.
In triathlon, this can be seen in all three sports, but have found that swimming is the most frustrating for triathletes. Those that are new to swimming, or who have learned as an adult, often find it hard to change, and understandably, do not spend the time working on the drills needed to make the changes. It is often tedious to spend time working on the skill that is required to replace the previous habit. Repetition is required until the new muscle memory pattern is established. By understanding the process the brain must go through to adapt to the changes, I hope that more athletes will be willing to take time and know that it is possible to reroute the pathways.
Most motor learning is in the brain’s cerebellum, it is the part of the brain in charge of controlling sensory and cognitive functions. There are three stages of learning motor activities. The first stage, the cognitive stage, is when the learner is introduced to the task. The focus is on how to do it, and not actually practicing the task. Often this is when the athlete says; “I don’t get it”. The athlete needs to watch, analyze, and visualize the task. The second stage, the associative stage, is when the actual practice of the skill begins, it is not done to mastery, but an understanding is achieved. The last stage, the autonomous stage is the “ah-ha” moment when the skill is done automatically with no conscious thought. The skill becomes fluent and instinctive.
Bad habits and injury can disrupt and damage muscle memory. So how does the athlete override it? A conscious effort on the new skill is needed to replace the previous habit. It does not happen in just one practice session, one day, or one week. Although it takes strong concentration you can change your current muscle memory. It only takes a few thoughts about your mechanics to interrupt your trained muscle memory patterns and change your performance.
Some key things to think about:
CORRECT FORM: If you don’t use correct form in your practice, any flaws in your technique will become bad habits. It will take a long time to change those habits, which is why as a coach I start with training fundamentals.
EXPERT INSIGHT: Many resources offer ways to perfect your technique, but nothing can replace an expert analysis of your style. Work with a coach who can dissect your performance and point out your weaknesses.
PRACTICE: Perfect practice! Practice, practice and practice some more. The more you practice the sooner it will become a part of your muscle memory. The action will become natural and you will improve both your movement and performance.