A Low Density Approach to Learning to Juggle

For anyone who isn’t already following me on the whole host of social media we currently have at our disposal, I’m currently in Phoenix, Arizona. For those that do, hope you’re not bored of all my pictures yet, I’m not trying to make you jealous, promise. This trip was organised as part of the partnership between Welsh Athletics and the World Athletics Centre, a partnership which I am benefitting from greatly as I get to spend 3 weeks in this beautiful country trying not to get fat on all the awesome food as I begin preparations for the outdoor season.

I started the week with another piece of awesome news, I finally had my corrections accepted, signaling the completion of my PhD and will be graduating this summer. This has been a really long and sometimes painful process but finally all the years of work feel like they’ve paid off (parallels with athletic training?). For anyone who was confused to see a 28 year-old guy competing at British University Champs (BUCS) indoors, this is why. Apparently I made the preview as one of the favourites (along with training partner Nick) for the outdoor title, guess I better sack off this competition I’ve got planned in California on Saturday so I can make it back to Bedford in time. Not.

AN excerpt from the BUCS website
An excerpt from the BUCS website

Timeless advice

A quick piece of advice for anyone who wants to get really good at athletics and make a living from it: You need to get good at doing nothing. This is the same whether it’s a training camp, or a preparation camp, if you’ve become a full-time athlete for the first time or if you’re at a major championships. Its really easy to keep yourself occupied by doing something, but the real skill is maximising your recovery and down time by doing nothing, but without going crazy.

Having arrived in Phoenix, my coach unpacked his juggling balls, so I’ve taken it upon myself to fill all my spare time learning to juggle (and writing blogs, obviously) before the end of this holiday, sorry, I mean training camp.

Learning to Juggle

Juggling is an example of skill acquisition in its purest form. There’s very little influence from peripheral fatigue factors, unless you decided to juggle for hours on hours with no break and you might begin to fatigue your biceps just from the weight of your forearms, but for this example lets pretend that doesn’t happen.

Now there’s two ways to approach this task; learning to juggle in the shortest time possible from when you start to mastery, or learning to juggle as efficiently as possible, i.e. least time spent juggling the balls.

Learning to juggle in the shortest time possible is easy, you pick up the balls, start attempting to juggle and don’t stop until you can do it, a “high density approach”. This might be 24 hours or it could be a week later. We’re ignoring the need for standard biological functions (sleep, eat, toilet, etc.) as well here, kind of like a physics particle model. You’ll start out rubbish, then probably get worse as neurotransmitters along the new neural pathways begin to deplete, reducing the signaling and causing you to drop balls. Then slowly and steadily you’ll begin to get better, really slowly, there’ll be hours of frustration as you battle your biochemistry but these new networks of signaling will speed up and become more efficient leaving you capable at juggling. This would be a hard fought battle all the way

Learning to juggle as efficiently as possible is the interesting one. I found this same pattern when I was learning to walk on a slack line, but attempting the activity for around a 3 minute burst will see you start rubbish, begin to show signs of improvement and then get worse again. As you get worse, stop. This is the signal to walk away. Come back in a minimum of 5 minutes, giving your brain and nervous system a chance to recover and you’ll start at a higher level, begin another three minute stint, see yourself get better, then as it begins to drop away again, you stop, take another break. Continue in this fashion as standard biological functions allow (another advantage of this model, 5 minute breaks allow biological function). By the time you have learnt to juggle you will have spent a lot less time with the balls in your hands, but the total time, taking into account the multitude of breaks you took (you slacker) will be greater.

How does this relate to athletics and sprinting?

Consider a more traditional higher volume approach to getting faster, this would be the “get quick in the shortest time” or “high density” method. Pounding away and grinding out the training until you eventually reach a higher performance level.

The current trend in lower volume training would be the second “low density” approach. Small bouts of training spaced apart, looking to build on performance from session to session.

Maybe the first approach works better on a short time scale, only three months until the season starts, must get fast. But this is a very short sighted approach, the athlete in the second program has the capability to be constantly improving on his performance building with every session, improving week on week, month on month and ultimately year on year. Which do you think this rather biased blog post writer would advocate?

Sprinting is not just skill acquisition

Lets now re-introduce the fact that sprinting is not just skill acquisition. There is a massive physical and physiological component to consider. There is fatigue associated with training for the sprints, something which is inextricably linked to injury. Injury prevents practice, which prevents improvement (perhaps an over-simplification but stick with me here). Which program, the higher density or lower density do you think will have the lowest risk of injury and thus give the greatest chance of consistent improvements across the course of an athletes career?

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