It has been proven by many scientific researchers that experts in sport possess greater perception, attention, memory, skill execution and many more competencies and capabilities to anticipate the future events. Perceptual and cognitive expertise lead to anticipation the future outcomes and efficient decision-making process which can be underlying causes of the superior performance. Awareness is a critical factor of channeling the attention enabling athletes to show competency in multitasking and perform while showing superiority at the levels of perception, anticipation and decisions making.

To be able to produce consistent level of performance at the physical (visible to eye) level, athletes are in need of the rested and productive brain, prepared to create mental images and connect them to the muscle fibers in order for an athlete to produce a movement. 

Unfortunately, we take a power of our brain too lightly, focusing on the visible, physical part of the performance. But we must remind ourselves that we have a “software” which is giving instructions to our “hardware” what to do and in what way. Unprepared or fatigued brain can not send needed instructions and orders to the muscles to perform, not at least if we accept a lot from our activities. Therefore, the very best way to optimize our performance (and everyday life as well), is to optimize brain health.

In order for our body to achieve the expected, our brain has to be:

  1. Well fed (nutrition and hydration) and 
  2. Well rested (sleep)

Brain nutrition

Particular nutrients influence our perceptual and cognitive functions by acting on molecular or cellular processes in our brain. Right mix of healthy foods have the optimal combinations of vitamins, proteins  and healthy fats which arescientifically proven to keep attention channelized, energy levels high and influence moods, feelings, emotions andgeneral wellbeing.   For example, magnesium is much needed for our performance. Most of magnesium is stored in our tissues and cells, with the highest amounts found in our brain. Food sources rich in magnesium are nuts, seeds, leafy greens (spinach,kale etc), beans and dark chocolate (cocoa).

Nutritionists, in general, recommend lots of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes as plant sources of right nutritional mix of healthy food. On the contrary, wrong food diets can decrease learning abilities and memory, keeping athlete in the fatigue and negative mode while increasing inflammation (very bad for the recovery process of an athlete). These foods are sugar packed, refined, greasy and salty. 

Basic recommendations for keeping your brain fit are :

  • Plant based proteins from beans, peas, lentils
  • Berries with flavonoids that improve cognitive functions (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries)
  • Healthy fats from avocados, seeds (sunflower), nuts (walnuts – omega-3 fatty acid), olive oil or  fatty fish like salmon (don’t recommend these because of farming though).
  • Dark, leafy vegetables like kale, collards, broccoli, spinach containing vitamins K, B6, and B12 for improved alertness and memory.
  • Complex carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa, corn, vegetables, and fruits, etc.

Watering your brain

Brain is 73% water. Brain health is significantly impacted by hydration—so much so, that if you’re not getting enough water in your body it actually affects attention span, memory functions, and ability to concentrate. If the water levels are too low, our brain cells cannot function properly, leading to cognitive problems, creating unwell feelings of stress, fatigue and overheating.

Water influences and accelerates the chemical reactions in our bodies making communication between the brain and the muscle fibers more efficient. Water helps getting rid of the toxins as well and enhance the delivering of the nutrients to the body parts. 

By introducing these foods in diet, such are berries, watermelons, tomatoes and cucumbers, our brain can obtain water from healthy mineral and water rich foods. These foods, a part from having good combination of minerals and vitamins, provide enough hydration as they are packed with water. 

Sleep as a recovery

Athletes require more quality sleep to recover from the physical and psychological stress imposed by the training and competition. Sleeping quality and number of hours can influence the levels of the performance in many ways. Athletes lacking restorative sleep exhibit increased fatigue levels and limited physical performance and decreased cognitive functioning such are reaction time (alertness) and decision-making abilities. Most sleep deprivation studies show that athletes experience decreased motivation, increased depression, tension, confusion, and mood swings due to the sleep deprivation. 

Sleep is an important recovery strategy due to its physiological and restorative effects in repairing neurological connections, tissue restoration and cognitive restoration for enhancing memory, synaptic plasticity and learning new skills. 

Sleeping quality and number of hours can influence the levels of the performance. In order for our brain to filter huge amount of information we receive during a day and to keep only the ones that are needed for long term learning and development, our brain needs rest. Lack of sleep causes lack of learning and memorizing as neurons used during the day can not rest and recover causing “fogging” or “clouding” of the brain and it’s functions. Brain is not ready to receive new important information the next day, if the quality of sleeping did not provide “freeing up” the cognitive space. 

Sleep actually takes care of our brain health as it promotes the removal of waste products from the brain and it’s cells which happens only when we are sleeping. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is a body fluid found within tissues that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This fluid during a sleep mixes with the interstitial fluid (found between the blood vessels and cells) to carry away the toxic waste products built up during the busy awake stage. 

But, it’s not just the quantity of sleep but the quality seems very important. There are two types of sleep of which the SWS (slow wave sleep) is referred to as a “beauty sleep”. This parasympathetic stage of our sleeping presents a crucial stage for the children (especially the ones in sports) and their growth, recovery and well being. During SWS (15-20% of total sleeping time), there is a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, core temperature, respiratory rate and general energy utilization. During this sleeping phase we secrete most of the growth hormones needed to repair our damaged muscle tissues and cells make them stronger. These processes are much needed for young adults in their peak of the growth and development.

We need to take care of our brain by knowing more facts and understanding the way it functions. 

Our brain and it’s functioning is the crucial element of our own general wellness and sports performance. 

Take great care of your brain as it’s only yours as it makes YOU who YOU are. 

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