By: Shiloh Beckerley PhD
We all know that physical fatigue can impact race day performance. It’s common knowledge that we should taper our training and avoid any long, strenuous activity in the days, or even weeks leading up to a big event. But mental fatigue can also dramatically impact performance.
One study found that cyclists who were given a difficult mental task before a challenging cycling task gave up 16% sooner than those who simply watched a movie and were not mentally fatigued (Marcora, Staiano, Manning, 2009). In the context of a marathon, this could mean the difference between finishing your marathon in 4 hours and 15 minutes… or if mentally fatigued over 5 hours. Another recent study found that when cyclists did a mentally challenging activity prior to exercise, they reported feeling more physically exhausted and produced notably less power (17.5% less at high cadence!) when compared to the same cyclists after they did an easy activity. (Brownsberger, Edwards, Crowther, Cottrell, 2013). That could be the difference between a 19.5 mph pace, and a 21 mph pace!
What makes something mentally fatiguing? Typically, mental fatigue is caused by lengthy tasks that are not particularly exciting, but required focused attention and leave you feeling tired or lacking energy. The day before your race, this could be a typical day at the office. The morning of your race, this could be following directions to a new race location.
What can you do to prevent race day mental fatigue?
• If you find your job mentally fatiguing, consider taking the Friday before your race off of work. Use that time to engage in something mildly interested, but not over stimulating, like taking a walk at Torrey Pines. Pay attention to the natural beauty and feel the mental fatigue from your week lift away.
• Table any touchy topics at home. The night before your race is not the time to plan the family budget or sort out the details of visiting in-laws. These sorts of topics can increase mental fatigue - so reschedule these discussions for after your race.
• The night before your race, grab a favorite easy reading book and treat yourself to a chapter or two. Reading is interactive, so it effectively keeps your mind active while relaxing you at the same time – reducing mental fatigue.
• The morning of your race do your best to limit the amount of focus required. Pack all your race gear and prepare your race day nutrition the night before. If it is helpful, pack your car in advance and have breakfast pre-made. Anything you can’t do in advance, put on your race day checklist so you can limit the mental energy spent on these items prior to racing.
• Call in the favors. If you live with someone eager to help, see if they will you to the starting line and drop you off. This will help avoid having to navigate the mentally taxing race-day traffic.
Brownsberger, J., Edwards, A., Crowther, R., Cottrell, D. (2013). Impact of mental fatigue on self-paced exercise. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(12), 1029-1036.
Marcora, S., Staiano, W., Manning, V. (2009). Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 106(3), 857-864.