How should athletes study?

As exam time sweeps around yet again, both athletes and coaches are familiar with the customary drop in performance that comes with this bi-annual event. Stress is stress, and the body can only handle so much in its tea cup before it overflows everywhere causing a real mess to all the preparations gone beforehand.

Let me give you a common scenario. Athlete has exam, athlete decides to revise for exam, athlete goes to library, athlete proceeds to sit there for 8 hours and be thoroughly frustrated, tired and stressed athlete now heads to training, athlete becomes more tired and more stressed due to poor training session, athlete goes home, despite tiredness athlete cant sleep because of stress over lack of learning. Repeat ad infinitum.

Clearly this is a stressful time for the student/athlete, but can some of this stress be mitigated by putting better systems of study in place, I present to you “The i telfono technique”, a ground-
breaking new productivity system for optimised learning.

Learning to Learn

All those years at school, hour after hour having to learn meaningless facts just to regurgitate them during a one and a half hour written exam at the end of the year. All that force feeding of information, like the foie gras goose with the funnel down its gullet. You would have thought that at some point the concept of learning how to learn would have come up. But if you’re anything like me, in my 22 years of formal education, no, it didn’t.

A productivity hack that I learned which I have found massively helpful is called “The pomodoro technique”. It utilises a timer, set for around 25 minutes. Once the timer commences, so does work. This timing process allows an enhanced focus on the task at hand, with a relatively short study window, but having the timer set even relieves the distraction of checking a clock. Zero distractions and total focus for 25 minutes. When the timer goes off, you stop and take a well deserved break. 10 minutes where you do anything that isn’t work. Then another major plus of this technique that I’ve found is that having been cut short, mid-task, by the buzzer sound, you already know what you are working on when you re-start, and so getting back down to work after your break is so much easier.

The technique is named for the italian name for a tomato, as the original guy had a tomato shaped cooking timer which he used, and thus “The pomodoro technique” was born. In my technique, we will be using a set timer on your mobile phone, so the bilingual among you will have already noticed where the name “The i telefono technique” came from.

How the brain stores information

An additional benefit of this style of working is it actually makes best use of the way the brain stores information. The brain needs the initial focussed attention study-time of 25 minutes to start putting all of the read information into the short-term memory. A very important phase. Equally important is the break. In this 10 minutes, the short term memory begins to integrate the new information with other previously-stored information which highly improves the memory storage and retention of this new info. This process occurs sub-consciously and so almost requires your attention to be on something else be it playing a guitar, taking a walk, or really, if you really, really have to, facebooking.

The problem with sitting

By now, everyone should have heard the saying “sitting is the new smoking”. I don’t know if sitting will make you into one of the cool kids quite like the little white cancer sticks, but I think this is more in reference to the deleterious health effects of the former.

I re-tweeted a nice infographic on twitter about this the other day, but for the life of me can’t work out how to post it here, so instead here is a page discussing all of the health risks of sitting, be warned, its extensive.

Any static posture if held for a long enough time is not ideal, combining this passivity with complete relaxation of the leg musculature, force and pressure increasing your butt-lamination (kstar, tm) load-bearing compression of the spinal segments without their usual tensioning guy ropes and a generally crappy posture will leave you a pool of inflammatory proteins, compressed jointy bits, tight hi flexors and un-functional gluteals. Noooooooooo! I hear you cry, not my glutes! Yes, your glutes will not be firing, you’ve become every physios dream.

So you intend to do this activity (passivity?) for 8 hours straight and then head off to training? Good bloody luck generating hip extension.

Currently, there is a lot of trending towards standing desks (still a little passive) or even walking desks, where the desk is mid-section high with a treadmill wedged under it. Nice ideas, but maybe the high pressure sitch (situation) of the pre-exam period is not the time or the place to be messing with a life-long habit of the hunched, seated concentration position you’ve grown to love. A longer-term aim would definitely be to progress to one of these variants, but for now, if we could sit for shorter periods of time and somehow take breaks relatively frequently to get up and move around, and try and un-do some of the damage. Now if only there was some way of working this into a system for productive working….oh wait a minute!

Yep, the allotted break now becomes your chance to get up and MOVE. This could be a walk, a game of frisbee or even some prescribed exercise (who doesn’t have some rehab work they should be doing?). One of my favourite options for un-doing a lot of the sitting related nastiness is the “tibetan 5 rites”. A series of 5 whole body exercises, generally focussed on flexion and extension in the sagittal plane, but pretty nice for the lower back and hip extension in particular, two key areas of gnarling from the sitting.

This was the shortest video showing the sequence that I can find, its a lovely lady doing them in a field at autumn time. I’m not one hundred percent sold on the whole chakra thing, but replace phrases like “this will open open the heart chakra” in your mind with “this will strengthen the superficial front fascial line whilst lengthening the back line” then you can start to see the benefits. If it opens my chakras as well, then I guess thats just an additional benefit.

I’ve been told by the athletes I work with that they’re not particular fans of doing this series in the library, but even just 5-6 reps of each every half hour can literally save your life (figuratively).

Any kind of movement will work here, but even something a bit strenuous can actually be good, I’ve heard Tim Ferriss talk about his use of 5 minutes on the rowing machine for a similar effect.

One more benefit

I can feel that you’re nearly convinced and that if I could give you just one more key benefit of this system then you’d be in. Well what do I have up my sleeve, oh yes, its the exercise induced increase in production in neurotransmitters, particularly brain derived neurotropic factor (bdnf) which should improve concentration and memory retention for the subsequent study session. I have very big sleeves.

So to summarise

1) Shorter study times to allow a sustained high focus and productive study time

2) Enforced breaks to allow synthesis of information for optimal recall later

3) Exercises to undo the nastiness of sitting but which actually feed back in and create more productivity in the subsequent study session

I guarantee* that just 6 of these 25 minutes intervals will be far more productive than 8 hours in the library ever was. Personally I like to stretch out the working time to 45 minutes, then a more significant break of 20-25 minutes seems to work best for me, the timings and exercise are not hard and fast, but hopefully I’ve provided a few principles which help.

The i telefono technique.

Thanks for your time and I hope you deem this post share-worthy.

*guarantee is not legally binding

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