Have you ever watched an athlete look at a target and then, during a window of opportunity that could last only a fraction of a second, execute a rapid series of movements to score a goal, climb through a crux or surf a giant wave? Such amazing athletic performances happen because those athletes have trained to develop their body awareness, which is one of the most powerful talents an athlete can possess.
Body awareness is your body’s sense of itself: knowing where your body parts are and recognizing how to make them work, either separately or together, to achieve an outcome. It’s a multi-ingredient symphony that combines movement and your senses, such as sight, with spatial awareness, balance and brain power. Without synchronizing all these components, an athletic performance could be completed clumsily, slowly or without accuracy, leading to fatigue or even injury. The better you understand each component, the better you will be able to train and develop the combined elements of this complex orchestra.
Proprioception – defined as the body's ability to sense the relative position of adjacent body parts – is one of the essential components of body awareness. Often referred to as the sixth sense, proprioception is what allows you to touch your finger to the tip of your nose with your eyes closed or complete other sub-voluntary actions, like hiking up a hill on uneven terrain without falling over. All of this movement is accomplished by transmission of information from throughout your nervous system to the brain, ultimately creating body mapping, the key to your athletic performance.
Body mapping can be described as the compartments in your brain where movement information is stored. Mechanoreceptors located in your tendons and ligament send signals through the nervous system to each compartment, ultimately telling you where your body parts are, what is going on in each, and how to move them together. These signals create a series of maps for you to access when you need them. The more a body part moves and the more intricate the movements, the more detailed the map. The opposite happens as well; when movement declines, your maps fade or disappear. A longboard surfer would probably have a larger compartment for foot maps storage than a climber, who would have a larger compartment for their hands.
To achieve extraordinary movement you need an excellent mapping system, which balanced training can help build. It can help your body create a better sense of where its body parts are, and force you to use stabilizer muscles to control body movement. Stabilizer muscle movements are hard to feel in dynamic situations such as dodging and diving out on the field, or in environments like out on the water in waves. Creating a controlled environment with limited stimulation, so you can practice thoughtful movement, is key for developing your proprioception and building those all-important stabilizer muscles. Using a balance trainer like a Kumo Board, standing on an air cushion, walking a slack line or performing exercises on one foot are great ways to build proprioception. It forces you to concentrate and engage muscles for control.
But that controlled movement practice needs to be balanced with more unrestricted movement. I believe the best way to develop clear, quality mapping is through mindful, thoughtful, enriching outdoor play. Humans were designed to be outdoors, running, jumping and climbing with our whole bodies in motion, not in a room, desensitized by man-made surfaces and gear where our toes can’t spread or feel the terrain change under our feet. It’s not just where we play that matters either. Our play must be free of message blockers, like pain or the so-called "life junk" that can clutter our minds, where clear mapping can’t happen. Outdoor play is even more beneficial when we choose new activities to us like hiking, rock climbing, surfing, mountaineering or just plain bushwhacking through some tough terrain. Free-form movement and dynamic experiences in the great outdoors are our yin to the yang of classic structured training concepts, and the brain mapping rewards that can result if we embrace them are limitless.
Since 2007, Casi Rynkowski has been living her dream training athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and those who want to live a healthier lifestyle. Her passion for fitness outdoors exploded when she launched her adventure fitness business, exposing clients to the idea of fitness outside four walls. Surfing, stand up paddling, rock climbing, ice climbing, and winter mountaineering became her new training ground in New England. She loves engaging with people of all levels of experience and providing them with quality instruction and the knowledge necessary to build their confidence to step outside their comfort zone.