Performance in endurance sports relies on an athlete’s drive and these athletes need to be able to exert a lot of effort during exercise to win.
An endurance athlete’s capacity to push through pain when it counts can make or break a race. But even the toughest, most well-trained athletes can succumb to mental fatigue. The causes have long puzzled athletes and trainers alike but new research might finally shed some light on the mystery.
A recent review of 11 studies published in the Journal of Sports Medicine found that mental fatigue caused by a long day at work, a bad night’s sleep or even scrolling through social media can stunt our ability to endure a hard workout and perform.
In one study, athletes watched a 90 minute documentary before cycling at high intensity until exhaustion. Later, the same athletes completed a 90 minute computer task requiring intense focus before the same high-intensity cycling workout.
Comparing the two performances analysts found that while physical measurements such as heart rate, blood lactate and oxygen consumption weren’t affected by the mentally fatiguing computer task, psychological measurements, like perceived effort, suffered. The study’s author, Jeroen Van Cutsem, said the workout that followed the computer task felt an average of 10 percent tougher and caused impaired performances across the board.
The study found that mental fatigue impacts performance in two ways. Increasing the perceived effort needed for a given task convinces athletes they’re too exhausted to complete the task while also decreasing the value of the reward they’re pursuing.
The loss of drive seemed to impact athletes performing sustained endurance activities the most. In shorter, more intense activities like sprinting, it’s easier to overcome mental fatigue. Van Cutsem says that since they require little cognitive processing it doesn’t matter how tired your brain is.
You can actively train your mind to harness your willpower and determination to push past your self-imposed physical limits to get the best not only out of your body, but out of your mind as well.
A simple and quick fix for mental fatigue may lie in a sports drink or a cup of coffee. A 2017 study found that rinsing your mouth with a caffeinated drink before a workout resulted in a higher resistance to mental fatigue and increased ability to maintain cognitive performance. Refraining from social media prior to performances might also help combat mental fatigue. Amy Saltzman, author of A Still Quiet Place for Athletes: Mindfulness Skills for Achieving Peak Performance, says that scrolling through social media drains energy and makes athletes feel irritated before a workout.
Simply taking a few deep breaths before a workout can make a big difference. Carving a few minutes for deep breathing exercises can give you a mental reset after a busy day.