Have you ever spent a week before a big race tapering from training but using the extra time as an opportunity to catch up on work or study? And have you ever wondered why, even with a fully rested body, you were not able to compete in the way you thought you should have been able to?
Working primarily with student and age group athletes I see this so much, especially for those who are required to be switched on mentally, all day, every day. They value training as a way of escaping the confines of their desk. They love their body becoming their tool instead of their mind. But when they are fitting training in on top of a number of other demands; family, volunteering, jobs or school it isn’t just your body that gets tired. Your brain gets shattered too.
And the mental fatigue we have residing in our bodies can be just as damaging to our performances as physical fatigue.
The psychobiologist Professor Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent has been researching this area. He has run experiments in the military and found that when soldiers were given mentally tiring tasks to do in the build up to a cycling TT they performed far worse than when their build up has been mentally relaxing. Other researchers have looked at the impact of suppressing natural responses (which causes the brain to work really hard and thus fatigue) to see how that impacts performance and finds that again, those with mental fatigue perform worse.
And while mental fatigue can impact any athlete, it can have more of an impact the longer you are racing. So for endurance athletes who have many hours out racing, and are often training long hours on top of a busy work or studying life, the more you can resist using your taper week to catch up on work, the better your performance can be.
5 tips to prevent mental fatigue impacting on your race
- Learn to sometimes train with mental fatigue so that you get used to pushing yourself harder, but make sure you recover fully before you compete.
- Take the day off work or homework (if a student) before an important race.
- If you are in control of your own work or study load save some more of the more admin type tasks for close to race day so you do not drain your mental energy.
- Organise your race packing, transport and logistics as long as you can before your race. Frantically packing the night before a very early start will not only see you sleep deprived but mentally tired. Write your list of everything you need to take early on in the week. Pack a day or two early.
- If you are staying in a hotel or campsite the night before, pre-book somewhere for dinner, learn your route to the race and then spend as much of the day as relaxed as possible.