Mental fatigue: friend or enemy?

A recent study in PLOSone has shown that elite endurance athletes have a superior ability to resist mental fatigue. They could complete a mentally draining cognitive task far quicker and more accurately before a time trial compared to amateur athletes. The elite athletes then, once mentally fatigued, could smash out an identical TT time compared to when they weren’t fatigued. The amateurs? Well they performed *worse* after being mentally fatigued, pushing out 4.4% less power.

So where does this leave you if you’re not an *elite* endurance cyclist or runner? Are you any better or worse at resisting mental fatigue than the average Joe or Jane? The above study suggests that we’re not so great at keeping mental fatigue at bay. There is however an answer and it depends on your relationship to mental fatigue, whether you’ve made it *both* your friend AND enemy in your training.

Say what?

The typical wisdom is that being mentally fatigued lowers your performance. This is definitely true, but the difference is how we use mental fatigue as a tool in our training. After a poor night’s sleep, or after a hard day at work, we are tempted to skip our training session based on this wisdom. How good would training be if we are going to perform below potential?

This line of thinking is what you want to embrace in a taper period leading up to a race. Mental fatigue is your *enemy* in this case. Here you want to reduce your exposure to mental and emotional stressors as much as possible to ensure your brain, your mental muscle, is as well rested and fresh as possible. During your race your brain is going to work as hard as your legs, so you want to give it the best possible respite from mental fatigue that you can muster.

However, when it comes to becoming more mentally resilient, you actually want to make mental fatigue your *friend* and train a couple of times a week in a mentally fatigued state. Yes it will suck and your performance will be poor, but it will produce a mental adaptation that will make you tougher mentally. Your brain will become more resilient to that fatigue.

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