By Eliska Albrigtsen, CXC Team Head Coach (former World Cup competitor and 2011 NCAA champion)
When I joined the CXC Skiing coaches’ team this spring, I was very excited about all the different exercise tools the Center of Excellence in Madison has to offer to athletes and their coaches. Having a background in human physiology and biomechanics, most of these “toys” were well known to me, however, there was one exception that attracted me, HALO Sport.
HALO Sport is a headphones like device that improves your performance by enhancing neuroplasticity of your brain via transcranial stimulation. Uh, what a heavy sentence! Although it sounds very complicated, the setup is actually quite simple. Do you remember the time, when you were much younger and learning was so easy? That was thanks to your neuroplasticity. Neurons – the strings running through your body, sending information back and forth between your brain and body parts – were somewhat fresher and therefore more plastic, more moldable to support your body and brain in mastering new skills. As our movement patterns solidify with age, our brains tend to become solid, less plastic, as well. This is the point where HALO Sport comes into action with its gentle electrical stimulus to our heads. As I mentioned above, HALO looks like headphones, not earbuds, but a nice big pair of headphones with a big arch going from one ear to the other. When I also tell you that that is where the motor cortex, the center of the brain that processes movement, is located, it should begin to make sense.
HALO uses the arch to plant three 1.5 by 2 inches plates containing 24 soft spikes each that stimulate your motor cortex by sending very gentle electrical vibrations through your cranium, the part of the skull that encloses your brain. This stimulation amplifies the natural amount of electrical impulses in the motor cortex and therefore enhances the plasticity of the brain.
When I learned about this process, my next step as a curious coach was obvious. I had to try this! At that moment, I was working with British National Ski Team athlete Nichole Bathe, who, due to her tendency for straight leg positioning, which is common in women athletes, developed a negative habit of skiing with “stiff legs.” This habit hindered her ability to lean forward to bring her hips over her toes, in all ski techniques. My decision was brisk and we scheduled Nichole’s HALO Sport sessions over the next two weeks.
HALO Sport is powered through their app that runs for 20 minutes and allows you to increase and decrease the electrical stimulus according to your comfort. The twenty minute period is the only time required to wear the headphones to obtain the stimulation, and it is also the most sensitive period for motor changes. However, the brain is powered by these twenty minutes for another hour after you take the headphones off. Therefore, I planned Nichole’s workout to start with 20 minutes of technique skills, in a controlled environment, with mirrors for a feedback, followed by her classic or skate rollerskiing session, to support her effort to improve her technique with freshly acquired skills from the twenty minutes of drills. We started with simple balancing exercises, such as a one legged stand in classic and skate style, and in just two days I could see and Nichole could feel the progress. Instead of a shaky quadriceps being in a new uncomfortable position, there was a confident calm muscle knowing exactly where to be placed. Nichole herself had to admit that it suddenly became quite effortless. We did not waste any time and added a new challenge into Nichole’s routine, a quick body mass transfer into a gliding position onto one leg. Soon enough, three days later, the task was simple to accomplish. I went on and challenged her to perform the drills on an uneven surface by standing on a half-cylinder that rocks side to side, similarly as Nordic skis do. In the next three days, Nichole mastered that challenge as well.
I have to admit that it was a great mental satisfaction for her as an athlete. Being able to accomplish a task that your coach keeps repeating throughout your whole ski career in just a couple of days feels pretty amazing. Towards the end of our fourteen day HALO Sport period, we really went for it and made Nichole perform all the balancing exercises also standing on rollerskis. Those of you who have tried to stand on the less comfortable sisters of Nordic skis, can maybe imagine how challenging it is to stand on one leg only, in perfect gliding position, while motionless. It does require pristine style that is accomplished only through supreme balance, muscle memory, and strength. While following these drills with an hour of rollerskiing, Nichole was able to increase her explosiveness as well, leaving her with a year’s worth of work accomplished in just two weeks.
No athlete is perfect and we all need to keep improving every minute of our lives. But does it have to take that long to master a single skill? If you count yourself among one of those athletes who keeps hearing the same thing from your coach over and over, get your hands on a pair of HALO Sport. As a coach, I was pleased with saving my efforts as well as impressed with my athlete’s progress. I want to wish Nichole good luck with her season and thank her for being a subject in my trial with HALO Sport.
I hope this got you interested, if not in trying HALO, then at least in always trying to improve yourself or support others to do the same. Repetition and hard training do bring the fruit. The variable that remains is your time.