The eyes and speed.

Posted by & filed under Exercise and Training, Health and Fitness.

For the amateur exerciser, the usual routes to improve performance involve getting an app, getting a coach, getting stronger or bendier or even just doing more exercise.  All these things work.  What is rarely improved is vision and if this is not addressed in the training programme, we will hit a frustrating plateau or even injury. At the end of this article, there are three simple tests of vision so you can quickly see if you have a deficit that is easily addressed with the right exercises: bigger biceps, firmer bottom – and now better vision to add to the wish list.

In the referenced article from The University of Rochester, NY,1 it says that in earlier days of computing, building a programme that could beat a grand master at chess was considered far harder than building a programme that could emulate human vision.  How wrong we were!

Vision is not simple.  This diagram shows all the areas of the brain involved in processing vision – all the areas that we know of so far…

As far as I know, at this moment the boffins think 50% of the cortex is involved in processing vision.  50%!  That is a ridiculous amount.  Until recently, it was thought that 30% of neurons processed vision, whilst 8% processed touch and 2% sound.  In this context 30% is still a huge number. The bottom line is the better we see, the quicker we go.  Along with being stronger, bendier and more reactive.  And that is because the brain feels safer when it has excellent visual information that it can process easily: a safer brain means danger levels are down and the brakes are off.

It used to be thought that our vision was like looking through a camera – we can zoom in and out and fiddle about with contrast and so on.  Unlike the camera, there are about 12 different aspects to our vision, which can be summarised: clarity; visual field; ability of the lens to change shape rapidly; stable gaze; ability to hold focus on an object; ability to follow a moving object; ability to jump from object to object; both eyes working together and moving together equally; depth perception and finally understanding what we can see and its significance. All along with co-ordinating vision with balance and movement. Good news: plenty of scope for stuff to work on.

A quick search on Google Scholar using the search terms Vision, Athleticism and Speed bring up such research gems as this:

This preliminary investigation into the visual ability of motorsport athletes demonstrated that they may have superior visual performance when compared to controls. Increased visual acuity and perception time may not only act to increase performance, but may also reduce the risk of potential injury. 2

Or this:

Vision training can combine traditional and technological methodologies to train the athletes’ eyes and improve batting. Vision training as part of conditioning or injury prevention can be applied and may improve batting performance in college baseball players. High performance vision training can be instituted in the pre-season and maintained throughout the season to improve batting parameters.3

Both pieces of research mention injury prevention as well as sporting improvement.  How interesting.  Why?
Let’s take this abstract relating to speed and peripheral vision:

This study examined the effect of limited peripheral vision on the shuttle sprint performance of soccer players. Participants were 14 male soccer players of a student soccer club (M age = 22.1 yr., SD = 1.3 yr.). They performed a repeated shuttle sprint with full and limited peripheral vision. Mean total sprint time and mean turning time increased significantly with limited peripheral vision. It is concluded that only turning during shuttle sprint performance decreases when sprinting with a restricted peripheral field of view, indicating the use of peripheral vision for the control of directional changes while sprinting.4

The first 2 quoted articles are obvious: we do need good vision to play baseball (or any ball sport come to that) and to drive a car very fast.  But it is less obvious that lack of peripheral vision will slow down sprint speed and ability to turn a sharp corner.
The problem is that the brain is wired for survival: every waking moment its prime question is, ‘Is this safe?’ Our old brain is not interested in us improving our personal best.  Its only interest is that we don’t injure ourselves in the trying and, with vision being the prime sense, the better we can see the world, the safer it feels, so the faster/stronger/bendier it allows us to be.  And the better decisions we can take to avoid obstacles or danger as well as take the best line of movement.
An obvious example: travelling along in good light, on a flat, predictable surface results in more speed and fluidity than when the light is tricky and/or the surface bumpy or slippery.  We can walk down a steep hill much more quickly if it if a smooth pavement than if it is scree in twilight.
We can walk down scree much more confidently if we have excellent vision – which is inextricably linked to good balance.
This is what I mean by the brain recognising danger and slowing us down.  Whilst the above example is obvious, visual deficits are not.  Also in the list of visual skills, I mention that we have two eyes and that both eyes need to be working well.  Here are three simple tests.
  1. Look at a letter some distance away and another reading distance away; notice how clear the letters are.  Now cover one eye and look at the letters again, then cover the other eye and compare visual clarity between the eyes.  Do the same test, but move your head about, move your body about, bounce up and down, rock forwards and backwards – does the clarity of vision remain the same in both eyes?  It is very common that one eye sees more clearly than the other.  And sometimes some movements make things clearer whilst others make it worse or no improvement.
  2. Another thing to test: take a selfie with your eyes very clear in the picture.  Now blow up the selfie and see if your irises are the same distance from your nose as each other and if they are level with each other.
  3. Final test: grab a pen and take a selfie video of yourself: bring the pen in towards the bridge of your nose and away from it three times:  1) could you touch the bridge of your nose with the pen without seeing double?  2) did both eyes move inwards at the same speed?
And the really scary thing is that deficits are much worse when we are tired…..
Clearly there are quite a few tests that can be done to make sure the visual system is up to snuff, but these three basic ones throw up common problems that can be addressed with the right exercises.
So if exercising is getting frustrating, rather than just keep trying to improve the body, let’s have a go at training the eyes!


  1. []
  2. Visual acuity in young elite motorsport atheletes: a preliminary report. Anthony G Schneiders et al. Physical Therapy in Sport.  Vol 11, Issue 2. May 2010, pp 47-49.  Abstract []
  3. High-performance vision traning improves batting statistics for University of Cincinnati baseball players.  Joseph F Clarke.  Plos One.  Pub Jan 19 2012. []
  4. Effects of limited peripheral vision on shuttle sprint performance of soccer players.  Koen A et al. Sage JournalsVol: 100 issue: 1, pp 167 – 175.  Abstract []

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