Shortly after I entered my first ultra endurance race I asked my coach, Dion, how to avoid bonking (you know, that feeling of hitting the wall when your energy reserves run out!). His response did not soothe my soul. He said, “You cannot avoid the bonk. In fact, bonking in an Ultra event is guaranteed … a few times at least. The best you can do is accept it, keep pedalling, don’t fight it and you’ll recover”.
The dreaded glycogen depletion is a nemesis all endurance athletes, whether recreational or professional, have come to know and respect. There is however a sneaky little friend that accompanies the Bonk in close proximity. A deceptive fiend who doesn’t mind sharing the glory with his physical counterpart, letting him get all the blame for the wheels coming off in the latter stages of a race. This dastardly force I speak of is the Mental Fog.
As the dire tendrils of the Fog begin to curl around your consciousness you feel somewhat detached from reality. Your concentration has begun to seep out of your head like spaghetti being poured out of a pot. You feel a tingling in your body. A fellow cyclist’s chit-chat sounds like a stretched mix tape being played on a Walkman with dying batteries. Oh crap, here comes a turn! You will your fingers to pull the brakes. They eventually reach out to the lever. You know you should be leaning into the corner but you fear falling off the side of the planet if you turn your head even one inch. People cheering on the side of the road do nothing but exacerbate the throbbing headache.
Again, many of these symptoms can be blamed on the Bonk. However, many of these symptoms are a sign of mental fatigue in a race. But how does our brain tire out in a race? The answer is, “Surprisingly easily, and surprisingly quickly!” Like with physical energy, we have a reserve of energy stores that we use when we start a race. We can also restore these stores with good nutrition and hydration. The brain and mind are similar in that you have a certain amount of mental capacity on hand during a race. Sadly, it cannot be topped up as easily as the body by shoving back a few gels.
Our mental capacity and reserves are aspects of our endurance performance that we’ve got to build up over time, continually developing our ability to withstand mental fatigue. Participating in endurance events is mentally fatiguing. Sadly, very few athletes recognise this and Mental Fog continues to enjoy his reign unabated! The crux here is the risks associated with mental fatigue in an event.
Can you afford to not be mentally sharp in bunch sprint at the end of a gruelling road race? Can you afford to not have super sharp focus when barreling down a technical descent on a MTB marathon race?
Didn’t think so.
So how do we develop the mental resilience required to keep the Mental Fog at bay? The one way comes from the psychobiological research of Samuele Marcora that suggests we train high and compete low i.e. increase mental fatigue during our training and reduce it during competition. This is easier said that done for recreational athletes who have to hold down high-pressured jobs and be attentive spouses and parents, but these additional life factors increase our ability to cope with pressure, surprisingly.
Doing little things like training AFTER a stressful day at work once a week will improve your mental resilience. Another strategy is to not kill the 4am alarm after a rough night of sleep with sick kids or barking dogs.
I think Alex Hutchinson says it best …
If your brain is fried after a stressful day at work or a sleepless night with a sick kid, don’t follow the usual advice and reschedule the hard workout you had planned. Instead, embrace the mental fog and hammer the run. Yes, your times will be slower than usual, and the adenosine levels in your brain will be sky-high. You will hate running, and life in general, and Sam Marcora in particular. But if, a few months later, those please-stop-now runs translate into a PR, you’ll forgive him.
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