How To Overcome Mental Fatigue To Optimize Athletic Performance

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Just as much as athletic performance is physical, it’s mental. It’s about pushing the bounds of your potential, finding out new thresholds, max effort, and striving for peak performance. After all, whether you’re an elite level athlete or everyday gym go-er, the goal is to reap the most reward from your efforts, right? Well, we’re here to tell you about the missing link to optimizing athletic performance – the psychological impact of mental fatigue.

What is Fatigue?

Fatigue during exercise is simply the “inability to maintain a given exercise intensity”. [R] As you’re probably familiar, pushing through fatigue during a workout, competition, or training session has big benefits at a high risk. This is where you grow mentally, but can risk your athletic performance physically.

This is referred to as perceived effort – you might think you can do it (perceived effort) whereas physically, you’re unable to produce high quality and high magnitudes of muscular power. [R]

Whether you’ve depleted your energy stores, accumulated too many metabolites within the muscle, or didn’t fuel properly with your nutrition prior to your exercise session, fatigue is not only a physical result but a psychological one, rooted in the central nervous system (CNS), causing mental fatigue.

What is Mental Fatigue?

Not only does your body have limits, but your mind does too. Exercise is a great way to push the bounds of both your physical and mental potential, but only so much at a time until you completely deplete your ability to perform.

Mental fatigue is a psychological perspective of perceived and actual performance during exercise. [R] It can be used for good, by increased the perceived effort needed to complete a lift, run, or workout, whereas it can also be used for bad, working against the athlete mentally, making the perceived value of the ultimate reward, not worth it. This can be referred to as the ‘dual nature’ of mental fatigue. [R]

Mental fatigue correlates directly with your minds perceived effort for a particular task, activating or deactivating the inhibition centers and facilitative brain centers, influencing your next step. To simplify this, think of mental fatigue as the hand that affects perceived effort and reward, especially when it comes to optimizing athletic performance.

Why Does Mental Fatigue Matter?

Mental fatigue is worthy of consideration for an athletes performance simply because it reduces cognitive performance during physical exertion. In other words, when an athlete has a low threshold for mental fatigue, they perform poorly, make poor decisions, and have low cognitive functioning. [R] If you workout, or are an athlete, I’m sure you can understand how this can implicate you.

Think of box jumps for example. Ever realize that the only time the box eats your shins is when you didn’t focus on that ONE single jump? It’s because you become mentally fatigued. You didn’t make the right decision (to stop) and you failed (your jump) resulting in an injury. For endurance athletes, this can mean big consequences, like failed performances or serious injuries (not like broken shins aren’t serious or anything)

What is Perceived Exertion? The Carrot on the String Mentality

Perceived exertion is the mental aspect of training. That little voice in your head that either tells you to ‘keep going’ or to ‘give up’. It’s the mental perspective of how hard your body is working. An athlete’s drive is a direct result of their perception of the effort required and the perceived value of the reward that the activity will bring them. In the brain, you have two mechanics that are facilitated by mental fatigue, thus, influencing perceived exertion: a mental inhibition and a mental facilitation system. [R] Mental fatigue can inhibit an athlete’s actions during exercise by increasing perceived exertion, whereas it can also facilitate an athlete’s actions by increasing motivation toward a reward. [R]

The Psychology of Performance

Anyone who wants to know more about the psychological side of sports would be well advised to talk to Vana Hutter. She is an expert on the mental health of top-class athletes, and she sums up all of the research on the matter as follows: Top-class athletes are armed with high levels of self-confidence, dedication, and focus, as well as the ability to concentrate and handle pressure. Their academic performance and social skills are also often better than that of nonathletic types. According to Hutter, athletes need self-regulation in order to perform. Everyone can learn, to some extent at least, to control their emotions, thoughts, and actions. And it is this aspect — learning to self-regulate — that is of particular interest to runners.

Funnily enough, Hutter began her scientific career at the “hardcore” end of exercise physiology: physical measurements of athletes’ bodies. “As time went on, however, I realized that athletic performance is determined by a combination of body and mind,” she tells me over coffee in Amsterdam. “I discovered that it is far more difficult to predict athletic performance than some physiologists would have you believe. There are so many factors that we just can’t account for.” For example, how do you explain the fact that the times athletes run are so different despite their being physically very similar?

If you were to subject the top 10 marathon runners to a physiological examination, they would probably all have a high VO max and excellent running economy. Some top athletes have something extra as well, however. “Measured over a longer period, the trainability of athletes is more or less the same. What really matters during competition is the extent to which their physiological systems are primed and ready to go and how well those systems cooperate with each other,” explains Hutter. “Whether an athlete can avail of their maximum physical potential at the crucial moment is partly a mental matter.”

“You need to actively seek out situations in which you are forced to confront your own thoughts and emotions. That has the most effect.”

She provides an example. “If your muscles are a little bit more tense because you are nervous, this will have an effect on your movement efficiency. You will need more energy to achieve the same kind of forward motion. This is the biomechanical explanation of the role of psychology in performance. On the other side of the spectrum, nervous anxiety can result in negative thoughts and fear of failure.” In other words, to go far as an athlete, you need not only the right kind of physique but also to be mentally strong, primarily because of the influence the psyche has on how the physical body performs. Mental strength may, in fact, be the thing that separates the winners from the rest of us. Today, no one denies the role played by psychology in athletic performance. However, the extent to which coaches address mental toughness when training their athletes is a different matter, according to Hutter. Most of them do integrate it into their training, but opinions vary greatly on just how trainable mental toughness actually is.


What makes you “mentally tough”? What does it require you to do? Or indeed not to do? Sports psychologists still haven’t come up with a clear answer. Mental toughness is a catch-all term without any well-defined meaning, explains Hutter. “We associate mental toughness with the ability to deal with difficult situations. And it helps if you are armed with a wide range of coping mechanisms, as well as the creativity required to turn difficult situations to your advantage.” In any event, one thing you really need in order to train and perform well is self-regulation. Perseverance, the ability to block out your surroundings, clear goals, and being able to cope with stress are the skills associated with self-regulation.

There are two of kinds of self-regulation, and they are often used interchangeably in scientific literature. The first is self-regulated learning, which is important in every kind of sport. It involves taking control of your own development process and using every available opportunity and situation to keep on improving, for example, by tackling the steep hill instead of sticking to the flat track or going to training after a hard day’s work or a bad night’s sleep.

The second kind of self-regulation concerns how to control your emotions, thoughts, and actions and keep them in line with your goals. For example, how do you deal with the inevitable nerves before a race and feelings of boredom and fatigue while you are running? “Some people have a natural talent for self-regulation,” says Hutter. “Even children can be very good at it from a young age.” She cannot say for sure, however, whether top-class athletes are born with an inherent talent for self-regulation or develop it from practicing their sport. “Self-regulation can be learned to some extent, but we do not know how trainable it is, primarily because of its complexity. I think there’s a limit to its trainability. People who are very bad at it can certainly improve. But they will probably never be as good as those who have a natural talent for self-regulation or have worked on it from an early age.”

So how should recreational athletes train their self-regulation? Should they employ a coach or sports psychologist? Sure, a sports psychologist can help, but a little background information is usually enough to get you started, Hutter tells me. “You need to actively seek out situations in which you are forced to confront your own thoughts and emotions. That has the most effect.” We may not always realize it, but every time we train, we are exposed to a lot of different psychological stimulants. “We all require motivation to complete a training session. Sometimes you have to dig very deep to find it, and sometimes it’s there at your fingertips. Increasing your pace and pushing on through the fatigue is a form of mental power training. Even just making time for an endurance training session lasting a couple of hours involves a psychological process.”

How to Reduce Mental Fatigue In Athletes

In order to develop a strong, capable athletic body, one must develop the mind along with it. Some trainers will even argue that “the mind must be developed first, prior to the body”, as said by Charles Poliquin at a Clinical and Scientific Insights (CASI) conference in San Francisco. Neurotransmitters play a big role in mental fatigue and athletic performance, which is at the very root of the “brain before brawn” mentality. While physical skill can be observed through speed, strength, power, coordination, and coordination, less visible (and quite often, less considered) is the raw power of an athlete’s mind that must be developed to advance in their chosen endeavor.

For example, as printed by Dr. Anderw Coutts in the Journal of Sports Sciences, “team sports place more stress on the brain than any other activity,” demanding athletes to “remain vigilant for long periods, adhering to tactical strategies, and constantly adjusting to changes.” [R] If you’re a coach, trainer, or athlete, who is looking to improve your athlete’s or your own peak power output and performance, then you must first understand the role of neurotransmitters in order to take the necessary steps to optimize athletic performance.

Combatting the “I Can’t Do It” Mentality

A decreased drive to perform during exercise is a direct result and deleterious effect of mental fatigue. The “I can’t do it” mental barrier that we put up during exercise because it’s hard is a direct result of mental fatigue. This theory has been proven in clinical studies where participants with this “I can’t” mentality actually reach their maximal level of perceived exertion and disengage from the physical task earlier than the athletes who continued on, despite their mental fatigue. Further exhibiting that mental fatigue actually limits exercise tolerance in humans through the higher perception of effort, more so than cardiorespiratory and musculoenergetic mechanisms combined.

The Athlete’s Mind Doesn’t Have Room For Mental Fatigue

If you want to become a better athlete, you must be willing to optimize not only your physical performance but your mental performance. Regardless of talent or success, one of the biggest things holding people back from their potential is mental fatigue. Those who go farther, achieve more, and perform better, are the ones who have made an investment in not only themselves physically but mentally. This is what takes players, athletes, and individuals from ‘good’ to ‘great’ — from being ‘something’ to being ‘something else. Let this article be your sign; the little something extra that you’ve been looking for to optimize your performance. By optimizing your body and your brain, you can stay balanced and positive and achieve heights that you never imagined before.


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