When we begin to learn something for the first time, our efforts may seem discouraging or pointless. When preparing to go out and compete in cycling, for example, we may find ourselves feeling anxious and unmotivated because we aren’t in shape or we can’t ride as fast as we would like. Understanding that we can get over this feeling is important and can help motivate us to get over the barriers that keep us from either getting on the bike for the first time, or getting back on it after a long period of inactivity.

Practice Comes Natural with Life

Each of us has experienced the effect of improving through practice. From infancy, we have naturally practiced basic motor skills like walking, talking, speaking, or even just observing the world around us. The more we practiced over the years, the better we became until these these movements became “natural.”  So why does it have to be so hard sometimes to learn a new skill? The secret is not really a secret. The learning process is the same. But the main difference between learning a new skill now and learning basic motor skills as a child rests in our cognitive development. First, we can’t remember the process of learning these basic skills as children, but we endured the same pain and frustration that we experience learning skills now. And second, our brain development slows down and requires more effort as we mature.

Practice and the Brain

All of us have heard the phrase “practice makes perfect.” The term refers to the process of repeating an action or behavior over and over again in order to learn or master it. Practice is essential to acquiring a skill, improving a weakness, or reaching a goal. But why? What goes on in our brains to make “practice” an essential part of the learning process?

Practice helps the brain “optimize” the new skill that is being learned that requires coordination through speeding up and strengthening electronic nerve pulses (communication) in our brains. This process is called myelination. offers a simple definition of myelination:

“Myelination is the process by which a fatty layer, called myelin, accumulates around nerve cells (neurons). Myelin particularly forms around the long shaft, or axon, of neurons. [It] enables nerve cells to transmit information faster and allows for more complex brain processes. Thus, the process is vitally important to healthy central nervous system functioning.”

Although myelination occurs with greatest intensity when we are children, the process continues throughout our lifetime. Increasing our brain’s speed and strength with which it communicates subsequently increases our bodies’ ability to respond quicker and easier to that communication. Each time we practice, our brain communicates faster and more effectively about that specific function that we are practicing, allowing us to then become more efficient at that process.

The Power of Habit

New York Times writer and bestselling author Charles Duhigg recently published The Power of Habit, in which he explains that repeated processes, or practice, allows our brains to go into “automatic mode.” The more we behave a certain way or perform a certain function, the less we have to decide about doing it, and the easier it becomes. This is what we call “habit,” which we automatically perform. He defines a habit as: “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.” This then “allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.” Or, in terms of practicing for a cycling competition, for example, you can train at high levels of intensity in order to increase your threshold power (being able to maintain a certain speed for an hour). 

The Importance of Overpractice

Once we have reached a desired destination in our ability (or learned the skill), we may think that we have mastered it, and can move on to learn something else. But learning something is actually just the beginning. Once we learn it, we need to keep practicing, or “overpractice,” as Annie Murphy Paul calls it in a TIME article on the subject. In order to truly master a skill or talent, she argues, we must continue to practice a skill even after we have learned it. She cites a study where a University of Colorado professor tested the amount of energy one spends when learning a task. The results show that the amount of energy decreases the more that a person repeats that task. In other words, our brains and our bodies become more efficient (cutting down on wasted energy and excessive muscle movements) when performing tasks the more we practice performing them. In an interview recorded by the article, the professor summarizes the key point of the study:

“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems the task has been learned . . . We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”

In sports, including cycling, the more we train, the easier that training can become. We continue to improve even after we think we have “plateaued” or are not learning anymore. The takeaway? Never stop practicing!

Photo courtesy of: jseliger2