• Introduction
  • Basics of reaction time training and exercises
  • Best methods to train reaction time
  • Cognitive exercises for training reaction time
  • Physical exercises for training reaction time
  • Video games and reaction time
  • Physiological effects of reaction time training
  • Sample routines for improving reaction time
  • Suitability for developing athletes and physical education
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources

Introduction

Reaction time is a skill that often goes overlooked in sports and athletic performance. It refers to the time it takes for your central and peripheral nervous systems to receive a stimulus, process it, and create the correct response for it. These signals can be either visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), or kinesthetic (touch).

For example, your ears pick up a signal from a starting pistol and send a message to the brain via neurons. From there, your brain quickly processes the signal and decides how to respond to it, if at all. If the signal requires a response, your brain sends a message to the muscles via efferent motor neurons.

Unfortunately, according to most studies, reaction time is a highly genetic trait and can be only improved around 10-20% outside of these biological factors. This is due to the fact that reaction time is a result of impulses delivered by the nervous system and therefore difficult to improve. However, that small 10-20% improvement might be just what you need to stand out from your competition. So why not make sure you do everything to get to the elite level?

This post explains how to train for faster reaction time. There are even a few sample training routines for you to try out. If you want to learn more about the scientific theory behind reaction time, feel free to read this article. 

Basics of reaction time training and exercises

Reaction time training consists of exercises that train your brain to produce the correct response to the correct stimulus as quickly as possible. In short, they aim to improve your cognitive processing (brain’s ability to analyze, transform, store, and recover information) after responding to a specific signal. These fast exercises also offer variety to monotonous training routines and help keep training both motivating and challenging.

Often times a high-quality reaction time training program combines cognitive exercises with physical exercises to challenge the mind and body simultaneously. However, it is important to note that you should keep rest periods relatively long at around 2-5mins to make sure your nervous system has recovered from the previous set. This helps you stay fully focused and alert for the next repetitions. On the other hand, some coaches also believe that brain exercises immediately after high-intensity training improve the athletes’ ability to think in high-lactate situations. 

One thing to note is that while reaction time can be practiced and maintained, it requires consistent training. This can also slow down the age-related decline in reaction time, making sure you can perform your best even as you grow older.

Here’s a simple chart if you’re interested in creating your own reaction time training routine.

Reaction Time Training


Cognitive trainingMeditation & YogaSports-specific technique trainingPlyometric trainingTrail running & Sprints on cuesReaction ball trainingVideo gamesReaction light trainingStrobe glasses

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Best methods to train reaction time

The most effective reaction time training methods include different cognitive exercises, also known as brain exercises, and different physical training methods. These exercises can also overlap, such as performing a certain task on the correct signal. Recently, studies have also seen a positive correlation between reaction time and fast-paced video games. 

Cognitive exercises for training reaction time

Although every athlete is different and exercises can produce different results, the most consistent way of improving your reaction time is cognitive training, also known as brain training. This refers to special mental training methods that improve the brain’s neural networks to create stronger and healthier connections. These include different card games (hearts, poker, rummy, etc.), crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, chess, sudokus, and math problems. Learning a new language or a new instrument has also been proven to improve the brain’s processing ability. As a result, your brain is able to respond to signals quicker and with less effort. This can significantly improve your reaction time, memory, and even problem-solving skills. 

Some studies have also stated that using your non-dominant hand or leg to do everyday tasks can significantly strengthen your neurons and decrease the brain’s response time. For example, you can easily brush your hair use a computer mouse with the other hand to create an extra challenge.

Meditation and mindfulness exercises also have an interesting effect on reaction time. Researchers say that meditation and stress-relieving exercises have a calming ability on your mind, which can enhance the cognitive process. As a result, your response time to visual and auditory stimuli decreases and reaction time improves. Think of it this way, a relaxed mind is both alert and focused. There are also signs that yoga breathing exercises may have a positive impact on alertness and reaction time.

Physical exercises for training reaction time

Cognitive exercises aren’t the only way to train your reaction time. There is also a variety of physical exercises that can reduce the time it takes to respond to a signal. These exercises often combine responding to a stimulus as fast as possible with more traditional methods such as sprints, ladder runs, and plyometric training. If you want to challenge yourself even more, you can change the timing of each cue.

Improving your sports-specific technique can also be useful in training your reaction time. This is because once you have repeated the same movement over and over and again, it becomes second nature even in sudden situations – much like a reflex. This is due to your brain’s improved processing ability in a sports-specific scenario. 

Trail running is another often underutilized training method for improving your reaction time. Its biggest benefit is that running on uneven terrain with branches, rocks, and elevation changes require you to constantly make small adjustments while you run. Therefore, it also needs a great deal of concentration and anticipation to maintain good balance and proper running technique.

Reaction balls are also great for training your reaction time, concentration, and hand-eye coordination simultaneously. They have an uneven surface, making them bounce unpredictably. There are also different sizes and shapes for throwing and kicking purposes. 

"Modern technology has opened some interesting new avenues for reaction time training."

Nowadays, more and more athletes are also turning to modern technology like reaction light training systems or strobe glasses to improve their reaction time.

Reaction light systems are used to improve speed and cognitive processing by using mountable LED lights that can be deactivated by touching them with your hands, feet, or other training equipment. These systems also often come with built-in training programs for different sports that can be controlled via a smartphone or tablet. The most high-end versions even provide immediate feedback so you can track your progress with just a few clicks.

Strobe glass technology works by flickering between clear and opaque, which removes some of the visual information your brain receives. Removing visual information makes it easier for the athlete to process information and focus on the task at hand. Once these glasses are taken off, the brain should, in theory, be able to process information faster and more efficiently in sports-specific scenarios.

Video games and reaction time

Although video games don’t seem like an obvious choice for improving your athletic performance, numerous studies have stated that fast-paced video games have a clear connection to better cognitive abilities. This is because most video games require you to identify and select relevant visual information, followed by quick motor responses. 

Interestingly, action video games like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike have proven to significantly improve cognitive abilities and even provide performance benefits in traditional sports. These include factors such as faster visual processing and quicker reaction times. Fast-paced video games also decrease the attentional blink (ability to identify visual stimuli in quick succession), prevent attention capture of irrelevant distractions, as well as improve search efficiency. In short, video game players and eSports athletes’ often have better attention control and perceptual sensitivity because their brains are more efficient in collecting visual and auditory information and making decisions based on it. 

Studies have also stated that fast-paced video games have a beneficial effect on a phenomenon known as the Simon Effect, which refers to the conflict in the attention system when a stimulus occurs further away. Video game training can help reduce these negative effects and decrease reaction time regardless of where the stimulus occurs. 

Despite being useful for reaction time, concentration, and decision-making, newer studies have linked extensive gaming to impulsiveness and attention-deficit disorders. The reason for this is that highly stimulating games may reduce a person’s ability to concentrate in less-stimulating environments. Another crucial thing to remember is that video games are no substitute for sports-specific training. Physical activity and repetition are far more important when mastering the motor skills needed in any sport. 

Reaction time can be improved by 10-20% outside of genetic factors.

Physiological effects of reaction time training

As a result of reaction time training and cognitive exercises, your brain forms new neural pathways, makes relevant connections stronger and irrelevant connections weaker. This effect, also known as neuroplasticity, is an essential part of thinking, learning new skills, and memory.

Neuroplasticity can also be divided into two main types; structural neuroplasticity, which refers to the strength of connections between neurons (nerve cells) or synapses (junctions between two nerve cells), and functional neuroplasticity, which describes permanent changes in synapses due to learning and development. 

As a part of consistent training and cognitive exercises, the neurons in your brain become more wired together. This means that these neurons can relay information faster and more efficiently. However, this isn’t the only physiological change that happens on a cellular level. The myelin sheath that covers and insulates a nerve cell’s axon (thread-like part of a nerve cell that sends messages to other nerve cells) also becomes thicker, speeding up neural signals. 

In simple terms, the brain must constantly receive information to create a thicker web of nerve cells, weaken unused connections, and create new ones. This results in learning, which perfectly illustrates how malleable and susceptible to change the brain is through mental and physical efforts.

Reaction time is especially important in fast-paced sports like motorsports, eSports, boxing, badminton, etc.

Sample routines for improving reaction time

Looking to have cat-like reflexes that take your performance to another level? Lucky for you, we’ve created a list of different exercises to help you do just that! Check out our sample drills and programs to take your reaction time training to another level. We’ll also be adding more samples in the future. Enjoy!

Weekly routine sample 1

Monday

  • Trail running/orienteering 40mins
  • Video games max. 2x60mins

Tuesday

1. Warmup

  • Light 10-15min jog
  • Active 5-10s stretches

2. 40m Sprint on signal

  • Make sure to vary the timing of each stimulus
  • 4-5 repetitions
  • 2-3min breaks in between sprints

3. Reaction ball drill

  • Throw or kick the ball to the wall and try to catch it before it bounces twice.
  • 10 repetitions 3-4 sets
  • 2min rest in between

4. Plyometric exercises on signal

  • 10×3 Sideways weighted ball throws against a wall 
  • 2min break between sets
  • 10×3 Underhand weighted ball throws
  • 2min break between sets
  • 10×3 Box jump 
  • 2min break between sets

Wednesday 

  • Trail running/orienteering 40mins

Thursday

1. Morning meditation 

  • 30mins

2. Evening workout

  • Badminton 60mins

Friday

  • Trail running/orienteering 40mins
  • Video games max. 2x60mins

40m Sprint on signal

  • Make sure to vary the timing of each signal.
  • 4-5 repetitions.
  • 2-3min breaks in between sprints.
  • For more challenge, you can choose the correct signal from multiple signals to sprint from or run to different directions according to the stimulus. Sprinting from different positions can also be useful.

Cone sprint training

Take 5 different color cones and draw numbers 1-5 on them. Place the cones symmetrically around the athlete. The center is the starting position.

  • When the coach yells a number or color, the athlete must sprint and touch the cone before returning back to the center. 
  • 45s duration.
  • 4-5 sets.
  • 2-3mins between each set.
  • For a bigger challenge, the coach can also yell a simple math problem.

Tennis ball catch drill

Draw numbers 1-15 on tennis balls. As the athletes throw and catch the balls, they must first try to determine what number the ball is while it is in the air. 

  • Catch all 15 balls.
  • Say which number you just caught (without looking).
  • 4-5 sets.
  • 2-3 mins between each set.
  • For a bigger challenge, you can also yell the number before catching the ball or catch it with the weaker hand.

Reaction ball drill

  • Throw or kick the ball to the wall and try to catch it before it bounces twice.
  • 10 repetitions 3-4 sets
  • 2min rest in between
  • For a bigger challenge, you can ask your training partner to throw the ball over your head from behind you and try to catch the ball after one bounce.

Cognitive exercises

Different brain exercises can keep your mind sharp and even improve your brain’s processing speed. This results in better memory and ability to focus, making everyday tasks easier to do. Therefore, some sports scientists believe that brain-boosting exercises can also improve reaction time. Here’s a list of evidence-based cognitive exercises: 

  • Sudokus
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Math problems
  • Card games (hearts, poker, solitaire, rummy, bridge. etc)
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Learning to play music 
  • Learning a new language

Yoga 35mins

1. Sit 5mins in a seated position and ground yourself. 

  • Roll your neck slowly.
  • Deep, controlled breathing.

2. Sun salutations (A or B)

  • Repeat salutations for 15mins (around 4-5 times).
  • Move at your own pace. 
  • Deep, controlled breathing.

3. Seated stretches

  • Lay on the ground and perform seated stretches, twists, and deep hip openers or chest openers. 
  • 2-3mins each stretch. 
  • Deep, controlled breathing.

4. Cool down

  • Sit still or lie down. 
  • Relax with deep, controlled breathing.
  • Slowly get up after 5mins.

Video games

Choose a fast-paced video game (preferably action or something related to your sport). 

  • Try to limit your screen time to two hours per day.
  • Take a small break once an hour.
  • Remember good posture.
  • Never substitute sleep with video games. 

Also, note that video games are not substitutes for physical activity and do not teach you the necessary motor skills for athletic performance. That is why WHO (World Health Organization) has stated that growing children should limit screen time as much as possible. 

Note that we are not responsible for any injuries that may occur during these drills or practices. Always remember to train within your own limits and at the guidance of a professional instructor.

While video games can improve reaction time, they are no substitute for sports-specific physical training.

Suitability for developing athletes and physical education

Reaction time training is considered safe and effective for young athletes. It can also be included in a training program in various ways; brain exercises, physical exercises, or even video games. Combining physical tasks with mentally challenging exercises can also break up some of the monotony of regular training. This also makes reaction time training a great addition to physical education classes.

Although video games have shown a positive correlation on reaction time and other brain functions, it is important to note that obsessive gaming can have seriously detrimental effects on your physical, mental, and social health. To prevent these negative effects, try to keep your screen time to a minimum, and stay physically active. This is especially important for growing children not only for motor development but promoting a healthy lifestyle as well.

Educating young athletes to be versatile in their training can also have long-lasting impacts on motivation and athletic progress. Interestingly, there is even a clear correlation between grades and athletic ability. Teaching this could also lead to an increased desire for youngsters to keep educating themselves.

Final thoughts

According to most studies, your ability to detect a stimulus remains relatively similar throughout your adulthood, whereas the response time becomes gradually longer. This is why reaction time naturally slows down at a rate of approximately 0.5ms/year after the age of 24.

But that doesn’t mean you are forced to quit competitive sports once you reach a certain age. In fact, one aspect that all successful veteran athletes embody is their ability to adapt their play style to fit the needs of their game and position. So, even though you may not be as fast or strong as you used to be, you are still able to utilize the knowledge of the game to anticipate and predict upcoming situations – and stay lethal for years to come. 

Smart and consistent training is essential if you want to progress and become an even stronger athlete. However, this is not the only thing you need to consider in order to succeed. In addition to training hard, you must also maintain a well-balanced diet and take care of your recovery. Once these factors are in balance, you have a solid foundation to build your skills and performance. 

Did you learn anything new about reaction time training? Let us know in the comments!

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