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What if Fatigue Is All In Your Head?

January 16, 2017

You’re on the last mile of a long run or the 3rd set of a tennis match. You are starting to feel the effects of fatigue but you’re giving it all that you body can give to finish strong. But are you? Recent research has shown that this is simply not true. Let’s take a look.

First, looking at the chart below shows the top 5 marathon times. Notice that the last half of the marathon times are always faster than the first. If they are giving all they got the entire race, why are they running faster at the end?

In 2010, a study was given to a group of rugby players. He had them sprint as fast as they could on an exercise bike for 5 seconds. Then they were told to bike for as long as they could while maintaining a certain level of power (250 watts to be exact). They were immediately asked to do a max power sprint again for 5 seconds. Researchers found that the second 5 second sprint was over 700 watts, showing that the players had more in the tank before they quit.

The same researchers published an article that shows a lowering in exertion during exercise when the subjects were mentally fatigued. They did this by giving one group a difficult cognitive test to ensure the brain was being challenged and engaged. They then were told to bike as fast as they could for an extended period of time. The cyclists who were given the cognitive tests were fatigued much earlier than the control group. Another study in 2009, researchers at the University of Birmingham found that when cyclists who were asked to do a specific amount of work as fast as they could, were able to out perform the control group simply by rinsing their mouth with Gatorade before spitting it out.

So What Does This Mean?

This is just a small sample of the research that is starting to show that our brains are in more control of our perception of fatigue than we once thought. Although more research needs to be conducted, the new idea is that our brains are trying to use all of the body’s signals to make a decision of what effort will be needed to survive the event. If you are exceeding this effort, the brain will give out signals that will make the feeling of fatigue severe enough to slow down. To put this in perspective, consider the story of Tom Simpson, a top British cyclist who died during the Tour De France in 1967. His cause of death was heat stroke but blood tests later revealed that he had a lot of amphetamines in his body at the time. This drug basically takes the governor from the brain to limit effort to ensure survival. While it is important to listen to your body, it may be wise to listen a bit closer and see if what your brain is telling you is actually what is happening. Your ability to fight through the physical pain during a workout or even a tennis match can make a huge difference in your success on the court.

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