Ahhh, late August. Maybe it’s because August 18 marks my birthday, but every year around this time I find myself assessing the season to date and making plans for the rest of the year. Perhaps you’re doing the same, so let’s look at how a typical real-life athlete (i.e., me) might be thinking around this time.
Athletically, August is a balancing act for me. On the one hand, I’m riding a wave of road biking fitness from a lot of bike time. However, because of the southern Ontario calendar and my crazy travel schedule, there’s not too many road events to thrash that fitness on. The road emphasis really ends with the crazy 3,200 m of climbing Highlander Century on September 12 in upstate New York, so I need to keep my leg speed, endurance, and climbing form until then. However, this conflicts with the first cyclocross race of the season, which then proceeds nonstop through November and demands a whole different set of fitness emphases.
Of course, the other critical aspect of cyclocross is the major emphasis on technical skills like dismounting and remounting at speed, bike carries, off-road riding, cornering, and a hundred other skills that keep you fast and rubber side down. After nearly eight months largely on the road and off the dirt, do such skills evaporate? And if so, how quickly can they be relearned and is there an optimal method?
Skills Regression and Preservation
One concern of athletes in most sports after an extended time away, whether from injury, illness, or the off-season, is how long it takes to get back the basic technical skills, timing and “game” fitness involved with real competition. For example, with our club’s first official cyclocross practice of the season this past week, it was literally a crash course in proper barrier technique for many of us.
Anecdotally, we hear very often that fatigued riders are unsafe riders, with many of the crashes in pelotons appearing to happen out near the back of the group. This has been attributed to both the simple tighter environment in the belly of the bunch, and also to the weaker and more tired riders being in the back. It certainly seems logical that, as we fatigue, our mental performance and motor skills degenerate.
So the question becomes: Are there basic skills that are so ingrained in us that they are resistant to “fatigue” from hard exercise?
Rugby = Basic Survival?
From an evolutionary perspective, it would seem logical that we would never have survived our early days of “hunt and be hunted” if we weren’t able to function and perform essential survival skills while chasing prey (e.g. throwing a spear) or being chased by hungry and toothy critters (e.g. simple motor coordination in running across rough terrain). Can relatively modern and novel skills be learned and ingrained to be resistant to fatigue from hard exercise?
A research group from Hong Kong recently investigated this question in a series of studies (Masters et al. 2008; Poolton et al. 2007), utilizing the underhanded rugby pass as the novel skill. This seems to be a pretty good pick as a task, as it’s not inherently as natural as a single-armed overhand throw used with a spear, rock, or baseball. For the purposes of simplification, I’ll talk about the two studies as one large study:
• Subjects were university-aged males with no rugby experience.
• Subjects learned the two-handed underhand rugby passing through one of two methods. In the Errorless method, subjects began practicing with the target very close by (1 m), ensuring that mistakes were minimal. The distance to the target was then progressively increased to 3.0 m. In the Errorful method, the target was initially 6 m away, ensuring lots of mistakes, then moved progressively closer to 4.0 m. Total learning consisted of 100 tosses (e.g., 20 at each distance of 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3 m for the Errorless group).
• The actual testing was done at 3.5 m, a novel distance in between the final practice values.
• The tested variable was the distance error from the target centre over 20 tosses. This was done both before and following an exercise manipulation.
• In one study, subjects performed the test before and after maximal anaerobic exercise, consisting of two all-out Wingate sprints with a very brief recovery period. Those of you who have tried the Wingate can vouch that a single 30-s test is often enough to induce vomiting, so two Wingates are nothing if not fatiguing and unpleasant.
• In the second study, subjects performed the test before and after a progressive VO2max running test to exhaustion, therefore primarily taxing the aerobic system.
• In the first study, the experimenters re-tested as many subjects as possible after a one-year hiatus with no further rugby practice. This enabled them to investigate whether one method or the other, if any, was able to ingrain the skill.
Toss Me The Data
The studies provided some interesting information about how the human organism learns new skills under resting and fatigue conditions. Namely:
• Not surprisingly, some practice was better than no practice at all. After the 100 practice tosses in the aerobic study, both the Errorless and Errorful methods improved accuracy greatly compared to a control group tested at 3.5 m with no prior practice or experience. This illustrates the importance of practice, practice, and more practice!
• Also probably not surprisingly, Errorless learning resulted in much better accuracy throughout the 100 practice tosses compared to Errorful learning. This difference was huge in the first 10 tosses (100 mm error versus 500 mm, respectively), but the gap (150 versus 250 mm) remained even in the final 10 tosses.
• Following the anaerobic exercise, the Errorless group had essentially the same performance as before exercise. In contrast, the Errorful group had a slight decrement in accuracy following anaerobic exercise.
• Only the aerobic study had a control group. Surprisingly, despite the relatively brief practice and learning period, accuracy in both the Errorless and Errorful groups after exhaustive aerobic exercise remained much better than the baseline performance of the control group. As an addendum to the first point above, this finding suggests that even novel skills can be learned very rapidly.
• After a 1-year hiatus, both the Errorless and Errorful groups by and large retained their rugby passing skills. Compared to when they first learned the skill a year earlier, accuracy both before and after Wingate sprints were largely unchanged.
These two studies provided some intriguing food for thought when it comes to understanding the process of skills learning, and also the interaction between exercise fatigue and the retention of critical skills.
Firstly, it should be obvious that practice is important. However, the generally better performance and retention in the Errorless group suggests to me the absolute importance of emphasizing proper technique over speed. The focus should be on quality of practice rather than just quantity or overly complex/difficult skills. So it seems that perfect practice is better at ingraining good neuromuscular patterns and minimizes the risk of developing bad habits.
Secondly, well-learned skills seem very resistant to extreme fatigue. This suggests that skills can become ingrained to the point of becoming “instinctive” or habitual. Good news when we’re riding so hard that we can’t seem to remember our names – we should still be able to keep our bike rubber-side down!
Finally, well-learned skills also seem preserved despite a lengthy layoff. So if you’ve done the proper practice, you shouldn’t need to worry about having to completely start from square one all over again. However, it seems that high-quality, “perfect” practice is the better way of getting back into the swing of things.
Masters RS, Poolton JM, Maxwell JP (2008) Stable implicit motor processes despite aerobic locomotor fatigue. Conscious Cogn 17:335-338.
Poolton JM, Masters RS, Maxwell JP (2007) Passing thoughts on the evolutionary stability of implicit motor behaviour: performance retention under physiological fatigue. Conscious Cogn 16:456-468.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, with a research specialization in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He can be reached for comments at email@example.com .