The idea of muscle memory always seemed an odd one to me – why would your muscles need to remember how to move if your brain and nerves were designed to do it? The idea that muscles can remember how to move faded a while ago as our understanding of movement control developed. It’s probably worth a brief mention at this point that movement memory isn’t all down to your nervous system though – in the same way Stephen Hawking described 3 different types of time in his book A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes, things like Chaos Theory and Fractal Geometry have shown us there is more than 1 form of memory……..but that’s something for another day!
In more recent years, however, the idea of muscle memory has moved on to mean something different. A debate has broken out over whether your muscles can remember how strong they’ve been in the past. For a long time it was believed they couldn’t as, when looking at muscle fibres, if you stop exercising your muscles disappear. A study as recently as 2016 even showed that there was no change in the genetic structure of muscles when they’re exercised ie no lasting memory of how strong they’ve been.
The issue with the above studies was they were looking in the wrong place. More and more research studies are showing that bigger muscles need more nuclei within them and the numbers of these don’t decrease as the size of the muscles do when they’re not being used. If you stop training for a while and go back to training, these ‘stored’ myonuclei can then be utilised for you to get stronger more quickly.
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What does this mean for mountain bikers?
For the majority of mountain bikers it won’t mean a great deal as you still need to put the time and practice in. One group that will benefit (as you may have already guessed) are those coming back to mountain biking after a break. There’s a bit of benefit to be found as it means you’re going to be able to gain strength more quickly than if you hadn’t put the hours in in the past!
There’s a darker side to this in elite level sport however………extrapolate the findings of these studies and they show that athletes who build muscle while using performance enhancing drugs will continue to hold a strength advantage over other riders even if they’ve been ‘clean’ for many years!
You don’t hear about ‘doping’ in mountain biking in the way you do in other areas of biking competition. Does it go on? Here’s two professional perspectives…..
I’ve also posted on the drugs debate in the past in Drugs in Sport – to ban or not to ban?
With all that said, the main take away on muscle memory for me is that practice works and the hours you put in doing the right things pay dividends yers down the line.
If you’re going to take the time to practice, practice like the elite.