Even before birth, our brains are busy preparing the body to be great endurance athletes. Newborns appear virtually helpless, but their brains are quickly creating 250,000 new cells a minute. While the infant can grasp well with their hands for very short periods, breathe sufficiently, nurse, and make erratic movements with the limbs, they don’t appear very athletic. Yet the brain continues pursuit 24/7.
The brain has an incredible incentive to move the body, relying on its natural, instinctual built-infeed-forward mechanism. This is essentially the mind sending messages to muscles instructing them to keep moving. This is so necessary and ingrained in the nervous system that movements even occur during sleep.
More movement stimulates greater brain growth, rapidly leading to additional and ultimately more coordinated efforts. The process continues at varying rates—aided by a barrage of sensory input that involves the natural feedback mechanism of the body sending massive amounts of vital information to the brain every moment. This continues the stimulation of more bodywide development, maintaining an ongoing astonishing neurochemical cycle.
The brain receives sensory input from the eyes, ears, skin, vibration, touching and other senses, and from every square millimeter of the body, including muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. Even with each seemingly unpredictable, untamed, and inconsistent muscle contraction, the baby brain learns more ways to move, with the goal to accomplish these tasks in smooth, coordinated, powerful efforts and at greater speeds. The brain is continually teaching the body how to be a great athlete.
From the very first physical movements, muscle activity continuously plays a significant role in the development of a wide spectrum of brain function that also includes verbal communication, vision, sensation, and intellect.
Even the young brain remembers each and every body motion—a learning process that will continue throughout life. Other stimuli also play key developmental roles: seeing and hearing other people, sounds, especially music, blood sugar and other nutrients, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sleep, hormones, and much more. As muscle movement becomes fine-tuned, pushing the body to greater feats, there is a further expansion of the mind.
Tucked away in the brain is another piece of its complex puzzle. The autonomic nervous system involuntarily regulates day-to-day necessities such as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, digestion, hormones and untold numbers of other actions necessary for great athleticism.
As consciousness takes over more movement tasks, the body and brain improves and evolves. Now our young endurance athlete better understands the game. It’s the meaning of training and racing—it’s all about survival. The mind already senses the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Nature knows that being the best is the only real option—with fatality the alternative. And of course, the young brain naturally wants to mature as fast and as complete as possible to accomplish this task.
A seemingly small organ, the brain is a mere two percent of the body’s weight. Yet it demands 20 percent of the blood pumped by the heart, taking 20 percent of its total oxygen as well.
Starting at less than a pound, the brain only triples in size during the first twenty years. But it orchestrates the building of an athletic body that’s some 20 to 30 times its birth weight. In a real sense, it’s the interconnections of brain cells that help accomplish this amazing mission.
In the first five years of life, most of the brain’s interconnections are created allowing the young athlete to make more sense of the world than most adults realize. Building to a hundred billion brain cells called neurons may seem like a lot. But the brain creates 200 trillion (give or take) interconnections among these cells, with about 180,000 kilometers of nerve fibers making up the anatomy. This contributes to the creation of a unique individual athlete, despite losing 30 million brain cells each year due to normal wear and tear. (For comparison, our brain’s 200 trillion interconnections are more than the number of stars in our Milky Way galaxy—about 400 billion. Astronomers estimate there are 170 billion galaxies in the known universe.)
All this activity is from a small glob of fat and protein—mostly water and biological tissues—that can fit in the hand. Its natural intelligence far outpaces today’s artificial intelligence. And the brain adapts even to the most extreme conditions. (Consider an animal’s broken leg, and how the gait is adjusted so the animal can continue moving and surviving. Or think about the surgical removal of half of a person’s brain, and how the remaining part automatically rewires itself to make up for the missing parts, allowing the patient to live a normal life.)
This period of a young athlete’s life will be the most neurologically intense training time ever encountered. While the future sports world awaits him and her, the foundation of movement potential is already well established—that great gait is already hidden in the brain’s network, gradually developing the body with this in mind.
Now, as the child’s mind trains to creep, crawl, walk then run the hope is that nothing gets in the way.
At every stage of life, our continuously developing rebuilding body can run into problems—it can become impaired by various factors.
None of these amazing activities can continue without the presence of good quality food. Nutrition provides the building blocks for an excellent body made up of rapidly growing muscles, expanding brain and everything in between, and at an astonishing rate. Food is the raw material used to make a whole new body—replenishing parts regularly throughout life.
No pain no gain can be instilled at an early age, such as when the sports announcer claims that “Big Joe is tough because he plays hurt.” On the commercial break a cartoon character proclaims the greatness of sugar, while shoes of all types impair the body from the ground up.
These and many other obstacles can block the brain’s natural progress to build the best athletic body, literally preventing forward motion.
For all athletes, it’s not about finding the best training schedule, having a great race strategy, or trying a new sports diet. The brain already possesses this knowledge. The ability to train and race effectively already exists in a healthy brain.
Despite the vulnerabilities, we all possess resiliency. We recover, bounce back, and can even restore much of our youth through the process of becoming physiologically younger. It begins by building and maintaining a better brain.
Yes, everyone is an athlete. The more we progress, the longer we endure, and the further and faster we persist throughout the human race. Endurance, intuition and instincts are all entwined, and the sooner we allow them to flourish, the more athletic we become. It’s not too late to continue the process, starting right now.