Mental Fitness – Finding Fuel in an Empty Tank

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This episode, mental fitness, or what we can do in our heads to push ourselves that extra mile.


“So I got to maybe with 2K to go in this race, and I realized what was at stake and that’s when it really got hard and this phrase popped in my head. This is for a lifetime… It was just the right phrase and it fit me, it fit the circumstances, it helped me get to that that finish line.”


— Matt Fitzgerald, author of “How Bad do You Want it?”, endurance runner and triathlete.


The Feature


Any athlete can relate to the time old image of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The angel is telling us to keep going, to push ourselves that extra mile, while the devil is tempting us to quit, telling us it will all be over if we stop.


Are you a quitter? Or do you have the ability to tell yourself to keep going? Is it possible to adapt your brain to tell your body to go harder and further?


In today’s episode we speak to an expert on mental fitness, the ability to push through the pain of exercise to go the extra mile. He gives us his insights on what he has done in life to build mental fitness and toughness, and some tips on how you can start training your brain today.

The Transcript


Damian: This is the Semi-Pro Cycling Podcast. I’m Damian Ruse and today I’m joined by Semi-Pro Podcast producer Ciarán Mac Parland. Hi Ciarán.


Ciarán: Hi.


Damian: Ciarán, you’re the one that did most of the leg work for this today’s topic – mental toughness.


Ciarán: Yeah, that’s right.


Damian: Now, when we began looking into this topic we started with the idea of applying the latest in brain training techniques to cycling and asking the question – can they be applied to cyclists that aren’t elite? The time-poor cyclist, the busy athlete, the masters athlete.


What we came up with was some great insights from a runner. Yes, a runner. Or let’s reframe it slightly to make it more relevant to us, insights from an endurance athlete, that happens to run. So this endurance athlete started racing at 11 and only set his best marathon time this year at age 46, and part of this was learning how to cope with the moments that endurance sport throws at us.


But let’s take it back and get an understanding of how looking at brain training got us to this runner and why it’s important.


Ciarán: Ok, well, let’s start here. Picture this – you’re 2 kilometres from the end of a race…


It’s a really big race, one you’ve trained hard for, harder than ever, and you’re on track for your best ever performance. In other words you’re in new territory, a place you’ve never been before physically or mentally.


What’s going to make the difference this time? What’s going to keep you going and make that personal best performance? Is it your training?. Maybe. Is it your experience? Maybe. Or is it your brain, your thoughts, what your thinking at the time? Definitely. It could be anything, a line of a song’s chorus stuck on loop, or even a random mantra that pops into your head…


Matt: So I got to maybe with 2K to go in this race, and I realized what was at stake and that’s when it really got hard and this phrase popped in my head. This is for a lifetime. It’s at this last 2K this is for a lifetime. You need to run this like you’re not going to run again, let alone PR again in this distance, like that’s the last 2k you’re ever going to run.)


Ciarán: This is our runner, who I’m not going to reveal just yet, and what he’s talking about is something that will not be uncommon to endurance athletes – using a mantra to get through the tough times in a race. But there’s actually a lot more to it than just repeating something that pops into your head, it’s about the role the brain and your thinking plays in finding the limits of endurance performance.


Damian: What you’re getting at here is the huge role that your brain can play in pushing you to new heights performance wise. In some ways it’s the missing link to performance but it’s very early in terms of the research that’s been done – it is showing some promising signs, though. And considering physical fatigue is also something that few truly understand even after years of research, it has the potential for the great gains and this all stems from understanding the limits of endurance performance, and this question, when is enough really enough? So, Ciarán, when is enough really enough?


Ciarán: Well, the widely held belief is that once our muscles have run out of fuel, then we’re done for. But there have been studies done in rodents where even after they’ve been pushed to run until they simply can’t anymore, researchers have found that the animals still have something left in the tank, fuel reserves. In other words, they can still physically continue, but their brains are telling them otherwise.


This tells us that it’s not only lactate levels in your blood or oxygen shortages in your muscles that force you to slow down, it’s also how your brain interprets those signals. Other studies have shown that when it’s hot, cyclists slow down right from the off, long before their bodies have a chance to heat up. Another showed that rigging a thermometer to read falsely low room temperatures allows you to go faster. And others found that given incorrect time or distance feedback, people can go faster.


Damian: I’ve spent some time looking at how your brain regulates performance – and it was South African physiologist, Tim Noakes, who describes the scientific understanding of endurance performance as “brainless”. His “central governor” theory argues that the brain subconsciously creates a “safe zone”, causing the sensation of fatigue.


Ciarán: Yeah, and it’s fatigue that we are really concerned about here, and after 2010 the research on fatigue gets really interesting. In the long-dominant “central governor” theory Noakes argues that fatigue is a largely physical phenomenon that happens when the brain signals to depleted muscles that they’re out of gas. There’s another more promising take on the role of the brain in fatigue, though, by this guy…


Ciarán: Marcora thinks that endurance performance relies mainly on perceived effort and his findings suggest that fatigue and the role it plays in endurance sports might be mostly in your head.


Ciarán: Measured using something like the Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale which goes from 6 to 20, from very, very light to very, very, hard. Marcora believes that perception is the regulatory mechanism and that it slows you down before you reach your biological limit. As he says “There’s no physical reason for exertion to feel any harder, but when you’re mentally fatigued, it does, therefore you reach what you perceive as a maximal effort earlier.”


Marcora´s theory, which he calls the psychobiological model of exercise tolerance, because it combines the fields of psychology and biology, revises the “central governor” theory, which he has basically ignored as starting with the basic assumption that people stop exercising because of muscle fatigue.


Ciarán: To test this assumption, in 2010 Marcora designed an experiment with a group of rugby players. He had the players sprint on a stationary bike for five seconds, then immediately ride at an endurance-oriented, submaximal level until they could no longer maintain the required power. Then the subjects were told to do another five-second sprint. And the surprising results?


Ciarán: Marcora’s research doesn’t mean that fatigue is entirely imagined. Both the brain and the body experience very real factors of exhaustion, including reduced glycogen. The point, he says, is for athletes to understand that most of us can keep going after our brains start telling us to stop.


Damian: So the real question we need to ask is how do we do this? How do we train ourselves to keep going after our brains start telling us to stop. And part of the answer to this question was in a book you found.


Ciarán: Right, a book called “How bad do you want it”.


Damian: By Matt Fitzgerald. Who also happens to be the runner I mentioned at the beginning of the show. Matt has actually been on the show before, way back in episode 53, talking about his book Racing Weight. So it was interesting that his name popped up as the author of this book. I know he’s an author, and a running coach, but I guess he’s also been running himself for a while…


Ciarán: Yeah, Matt began running at age 11, quitting before college. He took up the sport again in his late 20s thanks to a work opportunity, did marathons, triathlons, then an Ironman, then only running. Throughout his career he has published more than 20 books on training, nutrition and more recently, sports psychology.


Damian: And this book covers broader topics than just, how to keep going after our brains start telling us to stop. It covers the concepts of mental fitness and mental toughness as something that can be worked on or trained. He believes that just as in everyday life, in sport we can use techniques that help us to overcome certain obstacles; obstacles like pushing yourself beyond your limits, bouncing back from defeat, preparing yourself for an event, letting go of the burden of pressure, all the way to dealing with the inevitability of getting older.


And I thought it was fascinating that he used many of these techniques in his own running (and life), which no doubt helped him recently set a lifetime best marathon time at the age of 46 – the thing that got him over the line was what he refers to as “a lifeline”. At the time it was the “This is for a lifetime” line. We’ll talk about that later. But when I got him on the phone the first question I asked him was for a definition of mental fitness and how it’s different to mental toughness.


Matt: Mental Fitness I just think of as the capacity to use your mind to your advantage as an endurance athlete, so that’s sort of a comprehensive nutshell for mental fitness, but if you look under the hood so to speak, mental Fitness is just sort of a collection of what I call coping skills, and these are the same… That’s a term from General psychology. Coping skills are the mental tricks and abilities that we use to just get by in life, and you know a race in endurance races. It’s not something that happens outside of life. It’s just, it’s one particular thing you do in in life, so the same coping skills that apply in your relationships at work, and dealing with personal crises and everyday life. Those same coping skills are what either enable you to perform or limit your performance as an athlete not that is mental Fitness.


Damian: Yeah, and even calling it Fitness implies that it can be worked on or trained or measured or you know like that there’s more to it.  Toughness implies more that it’s just innate and that you have it, or you don’t.


Matt: Yes. Obviously you can cultivate toughness as well, but again toughness is just… There are those athletes who want to believe, those especially who are sort of naturally tough, some of them want to think that that is the only thing that matters and it can get them in trouble. Because there are some times when you need to be smart and not tough, or you know smarter than you are tough, or there are times when you need to be… Toughness can be a kind of security blanket.  It’s sort of a way of,  if you have a ready solution to every problem, then that spares you the effort of having to find a real solution sometimes, but toughness in fact is not the answer to every problem.


Damian: Mental fitness is not a new idea, but the concept is a valid way of working on the brain to maximise performance training and racing and as Matt says, it’ not just useful for sport, having high mental fitness helps to maintain a healthy level of mental well-being for life in general.


When you think of a mentally fit athlete, who comes to mind? Elite athletes are the first people I think of and common mental fitness attributes linked to elite performers include the following:


•         High self-confidence

•         Commitment and ability to set goals

•         Composure, motivation, having perspective

•         Positive attitude and mindset

•         Mindfulness, focused on task

•         Emotional control

•         Ability to manage stress and anxiety

•         Control of activation and relaxation levels

•         Well-developed competitive plans

•         Ability to embrace and manage pressure

•         Adaptability and self-regulation

•         Passion and love for sport

•         Work-ethic

•         Responsibility


Developing these attributes comes from awareness and reflecting on responses related to best performance situations, experiences, and perspectives. Matt recently experienced this by living with some elite performers and witnessed this awareness first hand.


Matt: I had a very interesting experience this summer. I spent three months in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is at seven thousand feet. Because of that, it’s a popular place for endurance athletes to live and train. I was there living and training with a team of professional runners, and I myself am not a professional Runner. I’m also 46 years old so I was out of my depth, but that was sort of the nature of the experiment. But anyway, I was surrounded by I think it was about 13 of the best runners in America, men and women. I was there for three months.


I’ve spent my share of time interacting with Elite endurance athletes, but this was really truly immersive, and you know you can’t help but notice patterns, especially and to contrast, general observations about this caliber of athlete with the athletes I’m usually dealing with as a coach. I’m mostly coaching just recreational athletes and as a group these these young Pros were, what struck me about their minds is just that they are very rational. They’re people with emotions and personalities and hang-Ups like everyone else, but reason seems to be almost always in charge with these folks whether it’s making a tactical decision on a racecourse, whether deciding to bail out of a workout that’s not going well. That was really striking.


Damian: The rational thinking Matt’s talking about is part of this awareness. Things like composure, having perspective, mindfulness, staying focused on task, emotional control, and the ability to manage stress and anxiety all come down to rational thinking.


Motivation is also a big one on the mental fitness checklist but the reasons that drive athletes to succeed are just as diverse as the athletes themselves. Matt brought up the example of a gay athlete who spent many years in the closet. What drove him to succeed was the determination to prove people wrong about the idea that gay people are weak etc. He also gives the example of an athlete he came across who had a very difficult and unstable childhood and who was eventually abandoned by her mother.


I can see that stories like this have the potential to drive someone – but not everybody is faced with such drive-inducing obstacles. But there is another factor that the people that experienced childhood adversity and the people that experienced perfect childhoods have in common, resilience.


Matt: Resilience is, you know, I call it in the book the mother of all coping skills. Really resilience is just getting back up when you’ve been knocked down. But of course you have to do that in order to develop any of the other coping skills because those other skills require that you be in the game.


So if you quit when you’re knocked down, if you’re not resilient, forget about developing any of these others. That’s your foundation. You have to be resilient, because everybody’s going to get knocked down. But what psychological research shows is that, in terms of childhood adversity, obviously resilience can come from some degree, you can be born with it and then to a degree you develop it through experience and again the research suggests that when it comes to adversity experience in childhood, there’s a bell curve relationship between adversity and resilience.


So if you had the perfect childhood and nothing ever went wrong you tend to be not very resilient as an adult, but if you were on the other extreme, and you grew up in a war zone, and you know watched your father killed in front of your eyes, and this sort of horrific scenario that unfortunately is real in some places. That tends to break people so they tend to not end up very resilient as adults too. It’s people who are sort of in the middle. They experienced some adversity, but not so much that it breaks them. They tend to end up, again it’s not the only factor, but in terms of like you know a general correlation that that’s how it works, so then you know if you’re someone who grew up with a happy childhood without a lot of adversity, and you want to be a great athlete you might wonder, OK where am I going to get my resilience from?


And you know Cadel Evans is a great kind of paradigmatic example of how that could work, which is that you develop it through failure.


Damian: I’m going to cut in here for a second. This concept really stuck out to me – coming from I think was an almost perfect childhood. This concept of resilience is something I’ve never experienced on a large scale. And this idea that failure itself can provide the motivation is something that never really crossed my mind.


Failing on purpose is not the point, and failure as a whole has for some reason been glorified in certain circles – But this idea of failure itself as the motivator. That everything could be perfect but you still fail – and that’s where the motivation comes from is fascinating. Especially in the case of an elite performer like Cadel Evans.


Matt: So you know Cadel had all of the ingredients. He had incredible Talent. He had early opportunities. He had support. You know he was born to win the Tour de France but he finally went there and lost, came back lost again, came back lost the third time. He’s like, what’s missing here? Perhaps the only thing that was missing was a bunch of failure. I call it sweet disgust. Actually. It’s someone else’s term. I can’t remember exactly who’s now. Like you said I wrote the book two years ago. My own term for it is the Fed Up Factor, so you can have everything you need to win except resilience and but you will acquire that precisely because resilience makes you fail and you get sick of failing, so you see that happen. Cadel Evans is a great example. I think he won the tour on a seventh try. Mark Allen from Triathlon, same sort of perfect parallel. I think he lost the IRONMAN World Championship six times before he finally won it and he said afterwards “I would never have won it if I hadn’t lost it six times first because it gave me that last piece that I needed to be a champion.”


Damian: This is hard to break down and hand to you as a neat bit of advice you can follow. And that’s kinda the point – only awareness and experience will get you closer to your own unique answers to increase your mental fitness. Something Matt is well aware of as he shares a great personal example.


Matt: Ideas are powerful, so sometimes you tend to think, ” what are the exercises I need to do to get mentally fitter”. The answer is kind of none. You think and feel and experience and act intentionally, so for me a huge factor was that as an endurance sports journalist I interacted with a lot of the best cyclists, triathletes, runners in the world. And I realize these are normal people. There’s a tendency if they’re at a remove to think, “Oh, they’re super talented, and they work hard and that’s all there is to it”, but you get to know these folks and you realize that they have doubts, fears, insecurities, bad days, dark nights of the soul, all this stuff, and yet, they still manage to rise to the occasion and for me that was kind of almost shaming, but helpfully so because I realized I have no excuse.


I have absolutely no excuse so I use that shame to drive myself, so when I would be out in a race and get to a point where I might just kind of mail it in, you know cruise to the finish at 95%. We all know there’s a huge difference in suffering level between a hundred percent and 95%.  No one else might know based on your time or your wattage or whatever, but you know, so I get to those crucial moments, and I would think about that.


It’s just like I have no excuse, and so you know ideas are powerful. That’s not the only thing that I use, but that’s sort of what got the ball rolling for me. It´s that I just had this counter example. I remember doing an interview with the triathlete Hunter Kemper who went to the Olympics four times for the United States and was at one point the number one ranked triathlete in the world and in the course of the interview I just it came out that my two mile time in high school was faster than hunters and here he is going to the Olympics, and I’m writing about him, and so that was powerfully eye-opening for me


Damian: Matt´s experience, is unique and hard to replicate for the same results. One thing endurance athletes have in common, though, is dealing with the mental strain that everytime you line up for a race, and I’d even argue an important training ride, the risk is that you might fail.


Matt: You know it’s like if you’re an actor if you don’t know your line. Before you go on stage you’re doomed, and if you’re an endurance athlete and you’re not fit when you arrive at the starting line. You’re doomed, but as an actor you have to perform. You know your lines, but you could perform them poorly, or well. You could connect with the audience. You could fail, like,  it’s on you in the moment. It’s undecided whether it’s going to be a good performance or not and it’s the same thing in endurance sports. There’s opportunity, and there is risk. When the gun goes off it remains to be seen what’s going to happen.


In the Chicago marathon I had sort of a lingering hip flexor tendon injury, and I thought it was beyond me, but it flared up eight miles in. And I don’t care who you are.  That’s going to hit a panic switch. I’m like “Oh my goodness. I’ve 18 miles to run and this thing took me out a few weeks ago.”  How do I manage that?


That’s like maybe the equivalent of one of your fellow actors forgetting a line. You’re like “OK. I wasn’t expecting this. It’s out of my control”. But if you sort of accept that, that it´s this high-wire act and it’s not decided beforehand. It’s pretty liberating and empowering and if you have a certain amount of experience to fall back on or confidence or whatever. It’s part of the exhilaration. It´s why… You know, I’m far from being done. I ran my first race and I was 11. 35 years on. I I have no intention of quitting because it just, it’s such an intense one-of-a-kind experience every time you you toe the starting line.


Damian: Learning how to deal with these moments is an important way to help your performance. So what do you do with all of this risk, do you get nervous before a race? Or are you like Matt?


Matt: I’ve been at this so long now that it’s just not a problem anymore.  I don’t get nervous before races. I get excited. A little bit of nervousness is fine, but I’ve just gotten to a point where I’m not even, I’m just I’m kind of amped and then, because I recoiled from the suffering of endurance racing so intensely and it shattered my self-image so profoundly that I´ve really come fully 180 degrees and now I crave those sensations, so I can certainly have a bad race where it’s just not my day, I just don’t have my legs, but that’s that’s different from getting into a race and realizing “Oh my God. This sucks.”


When I have those moments that you’re going to have in every race, I actually enjoy them, like because I feel like this is my playground now. I’ve gotten really good at this. The last major race I ran was the Chicago marathon and I actually ran the fastest marathon I ever had so obviously I’m performing at my absolute limit in this in this race but everything I experienced, even though I was sort of redefining my limits, was so familiar because I’ve done it so many times before that it was almost like a script like where I´ve, just like okay, this is the part where I do this, and so you know…


Damian: Imagine being in a place where, like Matt, you know how to handle those inevitable tough times during a race. Having the confidence to know that even when you’re redefining your limits, you know you can handle it. This answers the question Ciarán asked at the start of the show. What’s going to make the difference this time, what’s going to keep you going and make that personal best performance – well for Matt he was well prepared, mentally (and physically) to go to somewhere he had never been before performance wise.


But it’s not like it’s smooth sailing – even though you might be prepared, you still have to get through the these tough bits. And this is where Matt’s, “This is for a lifetime” matra popped into his head. Of course it’s as unique as Matt himself, but his advice here can be used as a tool by anyone that needs that extra boost when you run into an obstacle during a race.


Matt: The thing is every race is also unique, so I’ll give you an example of how I felt very good until the really late going of the race, and then I started to struggle and I also realized that I could could break two hours and 40 minutes for the first time in my life, and also I’m well aware that I’m 46 and that this may never, I may never get a chance like this again. This is coming off the three months I’d spent training with professionals. That wasn’t going to be repeated.


So, there’s research showing that positive self-talk enhances performance. it seems like just such a goofy thing, you know,” I think I can, I think I can” that type of thing, but it actually works. There are controlled experiments showing that little mantras of positive self-talk help you perform, but there’s no one-size-fits-all. You can’t just tell someone, use this Mantra in your race, and it will help you because if it doesn’t fit your personality or if it doesn’t fit the circumstances, it won’t have the desired effect, so you need to develop your own personal collection of mantras that work for you, but you also need to be open to receiving them in the moment. I call them lifelines.


So I got to maybe with 2K to go in this race, and I realized what was at stake and that’s when it really got hard and this phrase popped in my head. This is for a lifetime. It’s at this last 2K, this is for a lifetime. You need to run this like you’re not going to run again, let alone PR again in this distance, like that’s the last 2k you’re ever going to run. It was, it was just the right phrase and I mean it fit me, it fit the circumstances, it helped me get to that that finish line.


So that was novel, like I had never thought that before I will never think it again, but I´d done enough races to know that if you wait, a lifeline will come and you recognize it when you’ve got it, and then you use it, so that’s just you know experience just working to my advantage and kind of a concrete example of how I go about it.


Damian: These mantras or lifelines are just one way an athlete can deal with stress or pain and yes they can be anything. In his autobiography Cadel Evans talked about the lifeline he used in stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France, the epic ride of a lifeline that won him the 2011 Tour de France, he used the mantra, ‘just keep going’ as he dragged the remnants of the peloton in pursuit of Andy Schleck.


I also have a distinct one that I always remember because I used it on the day of my biggest race win, and have never used it since.


It doesn’t have some great backstory like Matt’s, this is for a lifetime, or a great result like Cadel’s but it was there and it worked. I just remember repeating, go well, go shell to the rhythm of my cadence and it got me home in first place.


Matt also deals with other techniques in his book, one of them being the idea of “bracing yourself”. He argues that the idea of always expecting your next race or event to be your hardest yet, is a strategy we can all use to prepare mentally for a competition.


Damian: I want to stay focused on this idea of going into a race without the expectations that can set you up for failure and how that plays out when you’re in the middle of an endurance race because, it’s long and your mind goes through a million different thoughts when you’re in the middle of this thing and one of your suggestions is just to remove expectations and see how you go, but coupled with that is this idea of going into a race expecting it to be the hardest thing you’ve done to date, so how does that kind of feed into giving you a better result?


Matt: Yeah, so again this gets into research and general psychology that definitely applies to endurance sports and it has to do with… These situations occur in life all the time when you know that you’re about to experience something painful or unpleasant.


Could be a trip to the dentist, could be a 40K time trial, could be a high pressure day at the office where you have to do a major presentation or something and you know is going to be unpleasant. And there are basically two ways, two ways, two psychological orientations that you can bring into those types of situations. One is acceptance, and this research really focuses on pain tolerance because it’s so concrete, or pain perception. So you can either accept it, which is basically to say this is going to hurt and I know it, but you know I’ve experienced this type of pain before. I survived it. I’m ready. The other orientation is sort of more like a wishful thinking denial mindset, which is the last time I had this procedure at the dentist it hurt like hell. I’m going to have the same procedure today. I sure hope it doesn’t hurt this time.


Damian: And to be honest with you, I just had two wisdom teeth removed, and I approached it with natural tendency, acceptance that’s it’s going to hurt but no more than anything else before. It was a new experience to me so I kept telling myself that it can’t be worse than another surgery I had this year. So I just prepared myself to breath and get through the pain. What totally shocked me was how painful it was – especially afterwards – it’s no wonder some people never come back for round two. So here I am, with the pain fresh in my mind, thinking about how I’ll approach next time and right now I’m leaning towards mindset two – denial and hoping it’s not as bad next time.


Matt: But the research shows is that people who have the first orientation, acceptance, they don’t feel less pain, but they tolerate more pain, whereas The Wishful Thinking people are sort of… They set themselves up to be surprised by how painful it is and which makes them panic, which makes them experience the pain as more unpleasant, so if you know it’s going to hurt you should accept that it’s going to hurt because it’s going to help you deal with it better.


So perceived effort in endurance racing, which is the essence of the discomfort we experience, is not the same thing as pain. It’s a discrete perception, but it’s very similar and usually what applies to pain applies to perception of effort as well. So it sounds perilously close to pessimism to go into a race saying “this could be the most painful thing or the most unpleasant thing I ever experienced”, but it’s really not, because that’s separate from believing you can achieve your goal. It’s a realistic expectation, so you can’t be unpleasantly surprised by how much you do suffer in the race.


So I’m better off getting to back mindset one – knowing I’ve actually survived the other two teeth being removed and I can survive it again. And this is something we can all do when it comes to racing. Change our perception. Know it’s going to hurt but we have survived in the past and are ready to tolerate the pain. Especially knowing what we know now, that acceptance reduces the unpleasantness of pain without reducing the pain itself and for this reason, it is a more effective coping skill.


We can actually take perception changing into our training with what Marcora calls, funnily enough, Perception-based training. Actually this is nothing new it’s just switching from your favourite objective load measurement like heart rate and wattage and making room for ratings of perceived effort in monitoring your training load during training.


How you feel during training is the best indicator of your overall physiological response to training and your perception of effort during exercise is influenced by expectations in such a way that, when you feel worse than expected at any given point in a race or ride, this itself makes you feel even worse and thus perform worse. So, you’re is better off expecting to feel miserable in every race or ride, as bracing yourself for suffering in this manner will minimise the risk that your performance will be compromised by higher-than-expected perceptions of effort.


What else can you do to train ourselves to keep going after our brains start telling us to stop?


The final part of this comes from Samuele Marcora, he talks about the variety of other factors that can affect perception of effort and therefore performance. The most relevant one for busy, working cyclists is mental fatigue. If you exert mentally for a long period of time, your endurance performance goes down. And Marcora actually showed this in 2009, when he published a study that showed that mental fatigue can negatively affect physical performance—subjects spent 90 minutes either passively watching a documentary about trains or sitting in front of a computer performing a “cognitively challenging task” of responding repeatedly to a sequence of letters. Both groups then immediately completed a cycling test. Compared with the film watchers, participants in the task group found the exercise felt harder and reached exhaustion 15 percent earlier.


In other words if you have a long day at work and then go exercise, you won’t perform as well. By measuring it experimentally, he showed that the negative effect of prolonged mental work on physical performance is as large as the effect of muscle fatigue on physical performance.


What can we as athletes do about the effect of mental exhaustion on performance? What are the practical things we can do? Avoid mental fatigue before competitions – sleep well, avoid videogames or other mentally fatiguing tasks, avoid controlling your own emotions.


At the end of the day, it may be more about the attitude we have to an effort than the effort because as we are starting to uncover, it’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.


Damian: If you are new to Semi-Pro Cycling, check out the back catalogue of shows on all aspects of performance at or sign up for the Weekly Workout Stack – The guide that shows you how to structure your training week and use your training time more effectively, and I’ll also send you a best of our episodes straight to your inbox.


Alright, well, I’ll be back in 2 weeks. Till then – get on your bike and enjoy the pain cave or the hurt box. Whichever one you’re into.

The Facts

Hosted by Damian Ruse

Produced by Ciarán Mac Parland

Sound Engineer: Satyr Productions


Mind over muscle? Limits to Endurance Performance


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Build fitness on a realistic schedule with this time-saving planner.

Get your free copy of The Weekly Workout Stack™

Build fitness on a realistic schedule with The Weekly Workout Stack™

Get your free copy of this time-saving planner.
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