Reaction time is an ability often overlooked in sport. It simply means how fast an athlete is able to respond to a stimulus. Think a sprint start in running, returning a serve in tennis or dodging a punch in a boxing match. But that’s not all it’s good for. Quick reaction time is required in almost all sports and in everyday life. And the good news is, it’s a strength that can be improved.
So, if you’re someone who often trips over when you’re out running or never catches the ball playing team sports, read on to find out more about reaction time, how it evolves and what you can do to think and act faster.
So what is reaction time? Our reactions are determined and controlled by our nervous systems: the central nervous system (consisting of the spinal cord and brain) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves not part of the spine or brain).
When your body senses a stimulus it has to react to, a signal is sent from your visual sensors (the eyes) via neurons to the brain. These signals are then processed by the central nervous system and a decision is made. The signal from the brain is then sent through the efferent motoric neurons to the muscles, which then execute the instruction. All of this happens almost instantly.
Reactions and reflexes
Is there actually a difference between a reaction and a reflex? In short, yes. Whereas reactions enable us to respond to all kinds of stimuli, reflexes are specifically designed to protect us from harm. Since these need to be processed faster than an actual reaction, the signals go directly through the spinal cord and do not involve our brain. In contrast, our reactions need to be processed through the brain first.
How to improve reaction times
Quick reactions aren’t just useful for sprinters; being able to react quickly to stimuli is a helpful skill for many sports and activities. And the good news is that it’s a strength you can improve. Here are three ways how:
1. Sprints on signal
Get a friend or training partner to help you practice sprinting from an explosive signal. Keep the timings irregular to really test your reactions. Over time, your body will learn to process stimuli faster.
2. Technique training
When you practice exercises slowly, your body gets used to the movements and remembers them. When it comes to performing them at speed, your brain and body already know the drill; you don’t even have to think, you just react.
Being explosive is important for good reactions. Plyometric exercises like Squat Jumps and Split Lunges force your muscles to exert maximum force as quickly as possible, developing explosive strength and power.
4. Forest runs
Running on uneven terrain is an effective way to train your brain to react quickly to obstacles. With branches, rocks and unstable ground, your body will be forced to respond process signals quicker, speeding up your reactions.
Reaction speed is a crucial, if often-overlooked skill. Whatever your sport, fitness level or age, improving reaction times can have myriad benefits. Try including one of these four strategies in your training and see the benefits for yourself.