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Hal Gatewood/unsplash
Image credit:
Hal Gatewood/unsplash
Find the Balance/10/27/2023

Neuroathletics: Gamechanger or Placebo Training?

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The special training method focuses on the nervous system and is intended not only to increase performance, but also to ensure faster rehabilitation after or prevention of injuries. But how effective are neuroathletics really? Is it the game changer in elite sports or rather a hoax in training theory?

We fondly remember the European Championships in August 2022, when Gina Lückenkemper sprinted to the European title in 10.99 seconds. Anyone who was present in the Olympic Stadium in Munich at that time can consider themselves lucky. It was a special experience and a phenomenal run by the German track and field queen. With the last eight steps, Lückenkemper made up a good 1.5 meters on Mujinga Kambundji of Switzerland, who had been in the lead until then, and finally passed her in a photo finish. In front of her home crowd, Gina Lückenkemper delivered to the point and showed nerves of steel. However, what colloquially actually means a mental state of mind can also be interpreted differently in the case of the 26-year-old. Gina has been practising neuroathletics taught to her by Lars Lienhard.

Pioneer searches for the right software update

Sports scientist Lienhard has been intensively studying the connections and interactions between the brain and movements for over ten years. The result is a specific form of brain and nerve training. He calls it neuroathletics. Lienhard is considered a pioneer in this field in this country. More and more athletes are putting their trust in him, such as tennis ace Alexander Zverev, soccer player Serge Gnabry and Gina Lückenkemper.

Neuroathletics originated in the USA. The topic has been on the agenda there for several decades. Dr. Eric Cobb really got the ball rolling there in the early 2000s. The U.S. chiropractor was the first to integrate the findings of functional neurology into classic athletic training and thus develop new training methods. From then on, numerous US athletes trusted his method. NBA star LeBron James also had a neuro-doc at his side during his time with the Miami Heat (2010-2014). Eric Cobb also passes on his knowledge in training courses; one of his first students was Lars Lienhard. "According to classical movement theory, strength is a physical attribute and its central nervous control plays only a subordinate role. But that's not true, because muscles only execute the movement patterns that the brain tells them to," says Lienhard. That's why the central content of neuroathletics lies in looking at the brain. The approach: How can the control in the brain be changed or influenced in a targeted manner - for example, through sufficiently high-quality information from the sensory organs? Lienhard wants to know where in the "software" of the brain the problem lies and what an individual update can look like. But does that actually work?

Nerves can be trained

At the German Sport University Cologne, Dr. Vera Abeln is conducting research at the Institute of Movement and Neuroscience on how movement affects the brain. Primarily, Dr. Abeln's research is interested in how movement can be used to positively influence the brain. Negative influences on our brains due to lack of exercise are also aspects of her research. "The brain is very smart. When something is used more or becomes more important, our brain adapts in the long term. Plastic changes then lead to processes running more economically or more effectively," says the sports scientist. Nerves can also be trained. "New nerve cells or neuronal connections between cells can be created, known as neurogenesis. The transmission speed or quantity of messenger substances that transmit signals can also be optimized through frequent training," says Dr. Abeln.

Neuroathletics has also arrived in soccer

Former professional soccer player Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker has experienced this first-hand. The central defender was the first to practice neuroathletics in the Bundesliga. After team training, he regularly put in an extra session at FC Augsburg. Eye training, balance training, nerve stretching. At first, he earned a lot of scepticism and eye rolls from his teammates. Later, more and more rolled their eyes along with Callsen-Bracker. "I had compensation patterns for a long time after an injury early in my career, which led to recurring muscular problems. The contact with neuro-centered training was then a turning point for me. As a result, I have become stronger, more mobile and pain-free. My performance has improved significantly due to my increased quality of movement," says Callsen-Bracker. After his active career, Callsen-Bracker completely immersed himself in the subject and continued his education in the field of neuroathletics. He now oversees the field as an expert at the German Football Association, advising and training the German national A and U teams.

Scientific research goes to zero

The study situation in neuroathletics is almost non-existent and there are no evidence-based foundations on which neuroathletics is based so far. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the term coined by Lienhard is still relatively young. On the other hand, there are aspects of neuroathletics that already exist in other forms of training or are referred to under other terms, such as consciousness control, visual attention or anticipation skills. Dr. Vera Abeln knows why research in this area is lagging behind so much: "To actually be able to make valid statements about the effects of neuroathletics, you would have to look at the processes that cause changes in the brain during a movement. This is practically impossible with an MRI due to movement artefacts in sports, and only possible to a very limited extent with EEG. In addition, the methodology requires many repetitions under almost identical conditions. Considered together, these are the reasons why there is currently almost no valid database. However, it is a fact that every intensive practice also leads to plastic changes in the brain and processes are optimized. Therefore, fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this concept." So the question of what verifiable effects neuroathletics has on athletes cannot - yet - be answered.

No off-the-shelf training, experts are essential

Neuroathletics is increasingly used in rehabilitation and therapy. In professional sports, it is often about fine-tuning, getting that little bit "more" performance out of it, setting new impulses, or alleviating pain and problems that arise due to injuries. As long as more and more top athletes report positive effects and more and more associations and clubs open up to neuroathletics, Lars Lienhard does not seem to be wrong with his concept. However, it is also clear that neuroathletics requires an individual anamnesis and a specific recommendation. It is not an off-the-shelf training; experts and intensive, continuous 1:1 support are essential here. Dr. Vera Abeln can imagine that there are effects - incorrectly applied - in which neuroathletics is not goal-oriented. "Let's take the fear of re-injury. That can lead to tension in the muscle, which is not conducive to movement or even hinders it. Neuroathletics is then about treating these anxiety states and influencing the guidance of consciousness. However, I can imagine that this also works the other way around. If I consciously work with someone on information intake and evaluations of situations, it may be possible to aggravate or awaken something that wasn't there before," Dr. Abeln surmises.

Next summer, the Summer Olympics will be held in Paris. There, Gina Lückenkemper wants to show again that she not only has strong nerves, but also damn fast legs. Her first Olympic medal would be a huge success. Alexander Zverev also wants to shine again in Paris and defend his title from Tokyo. Then, at the latest, neuroathletics will continue to gain in importance.

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