A new study finds the secret to perfecting your skills
Trying to set a PR on those long runs or perfect a new pose in Bikram class? There's a big caveat to the old adage that "practice makes perfect."
Researchers at John Hopkins Universtiy School of Medicine found that when it comes to mastering a new motor skill, slight variations in the way you practice help you perfect the skill faster. It turns out modifications—we're talking small and subtle tweaks here—can lead to better performance in the same amount of practice time.
The study: To test how slight training tweaks would affect the learning process, researchers asked three groups to perform a simple motor task. The first group was introduced to the task and had a practice session six hours later where they repeated the task, with no modifications. The second group was introduced to the task and had a follow-up practice session that included slight modifications in the behavior. And the third control group simply learned the task with no follow-up. All three groups were asked to perform the task the next day.
Turns out, the group that had practiced with slight modifications were faster and more accurate. By a lot. They were almost twice as good as the group that had practiced in the exact same way.
"Don't just repeat the same activity over and over," says Pablo Celnik, M.D., professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "If you do it differently, you layer in new information about the task, which leads to better performance down the line."
Celnik says this is totally applicable to your fitness routine. Think of it this way: If you're learning to play tennis, you get used to the force needed to hit the ball and the way the racket feels in your hand. But if you start using a different racket or play on a rainy day, suddenly things shift a bit. You need to alter your swing and compensate for a wet ball that's ever so slightly heavier. Learning to adapt to these different conditions will help you master your serve faster.
So how can you apply this to the rest of your workout routine? Switch things up. If you typically run on a treadmill or pavement, throw in a weekly trail run to give your body a new challenge. (Try these trail running tips for beginners.) If you're trying to master a handstand in yoga class, vary the way you pop up and the surface you're practicing on. (Ever tried to do a handstand in the sand? Not easy). If you're into kickboxing, alternate between classes that have freestanding and suspended bags since each bag responds to force differently and will prompt slight changes in the way you strike.
Keep adding in slight tweaks and you'll be at the top of the class in no time.