While it's not "all in your
head", physical fitness and athletic performance are widely dependent on
mental endurance. Feeling stressed and mentally drained can have a huge effect
on how you perform physically, with mental fatigue likely to decrease your motivation,
increase the time you take to recover, and impact your lifestyle choices.
According to a new University of Queensland study, the brain may play a more
important role in physical fitness than first thought.
While emphasis is usually placed on physical
fatigue and recovery in the context of sport, according to University of
Queensland researcher Suzy Russell, much more needs to be done on the cognitive
side. "We need to think more about the brain in athletes and how it's
influencing their sporting performance," she said, adding "[This
research] gives us a bit more of an idea that it's something we need to be
looking at in terms of our application to sport."
The study involved months of work with the
Queensland Firebirds netball squad. Before each training sessions, 10
contracted Firebirds players were asked questions, with their saliva also
tested for the stress markers cortisol and alpha-amylase. This gave the
scientists a chance to evaluate the players based on both subjective
performance measures and internal stress markers. According to Ms. Russell,
"They basically are hormonal or stress responses to your external
environment and how you're reacting internally."
Over the 16-week test period, the players
who felt physically tired saw little effect on their training, while those who
felt mentally drained thought their performance on the court suffered. Managing
mental fatigue may be even more important than managing physical fatigue, with
the link between the brain and body responsible for how we function both on and
off the court. This goes both ways, with any kind of fatigue likely to
influence cognitive performance and degrade performance outcomes.
From limiting your attention span and
compromising your decision making through to degrading reaction times and
quality of skill execution, paying attention to your brain is critical for
anyone who works their body. As it turns out, cognitive factors can affect
physical performance in multiple ways, from decreased motivation levels and
resilience during training through to longer recovery times. Mental and
emotional exhaustion are also known to have a negative impact on lifestyle
choices, with excessive food consumption and alcohol use linked to stress and
Brain endurance training may be the answer,
with this computer-based training protocol developed by Samuele Marcora with
the aim to reduce mental fatigue and perception of effort. Part of this
training involves working out in front of a computer as your brain responds to
on-screen stimuli while your legs work hard on a stationary bike. While the
research is in its early stages at this point, there is evidence to suggest
that brain endurance training can increase resilience to mental fatigue. With
the right combination of work for body and mind, it may be possible to change
your perception of effort and improve your physical performance.