How Athletes Can Battle Mental Fatigue

Ever wonder how athletes battle mental fatigue over days and hundreds of miles?

You might not be a professional, or self-identify as one, but I bet you invest a lot into your sport and your health.

You exercise almost daily, take care of your body (minus those post-workout beers), and set big goals.

In a word, you’re dedicated.  

You’re willing to spend all that time training your body. You’re willing to invest all that money into a sweet bike or a personal trainer or a gym membership.

How much are you willing to invest in your mind?  

What if I told you that your mind is as trainable as your body, but with bigger benefits?

how athletes battle mental fatigue

“Goldenshred” by Laura Heisinger

What I’ve Learned from the Toughest Athletes in the World

There is a certain quality in top ultra-endurance athletes. From freakishly unstoppable runners like Courtney Dauwalter to relentless cyclists like Lael Wilcox to fearless swimmers like Gertrude Ederle, if you listen closely, you can pick out similarities between these superhumans. (All of whom have held records outright in their respective sports.)

how ultra athletes fight mental fatigue

Gerturde Ederle swins the English Channel. Wiki Commons

It’s this perfect balance of complete irreverence toward what is “hard” and what is “impossible,” paired with a total reverence for what the human mind can convince the body to do.

In a conversation with Tracy Petervary, (ultra-endurance cyclist and co-director of JayP’s Fat Pursuit bike race) I saw that she relished tough situations.

I could tell she loved pushing herself so far past the point of exhaustion and fatigue that a person just sort of runs on brain power.

At the time, she wasn’t the one racing. Instead, she was giving advice. I was deciding whether to walk out the door and consequently, into a blizzard and at least 8 more hours of cold and exhaustion. Eight hours seemed like a very, very long time to me.

She said, “I know it seems easy to quit now, but I see so many people quit, and you know what they tell me the next day? They say, ‘I had more in me, I wish I went on.’ 

What are you going to tell yourself tomorrow if you don’t finish?” The subtext was that my only ailment was fatigue, and so I had no justification to quit.

A person’s mind—not their body—gets to choose when it’s time to give up.   

RUNNING 238 MILES IN 2 DAYS, 9 HOURS, AND 59 MINUTES

When it comes to mind over matter, Courtney Dauwalter (record setter at the Moab 240 Endurance Run, among others) may be one of the best examples of an athlete taking it to the extreme.

She’s suffered temporary blindness and has become delusional to the point of auditory and visual hallucinations. She reportedly deals with the stress of racing with cheesy jokes. Her husband will often pace her (around mile 50) and spout out a stream of anecdotes that would make any dad proud.

HOW AN ULTRA-ENDURANCE CYCLIST BATTLES MENTAL FATIGUE

In a 2016 interview, Lael Wilcox sums up her mindset in races (and I suspect in life, too), which may help explain why she has been called one of the greatest ultra-endurance cyclists in the world (see: 2016 Trans AM race results).

Her statement isn’t necessarily profound, but in it is a simple truth that might be.

When asked about her biggest struggles, she admits that route finding has always been a barrier.

She continues, “Everybody has something that holds them back, or that they’re scared of. You’re just going to have to get out there and deal with it.”

The idea that ultra-endurance athletes just “deal with it” comes up again, and again, and again during interviews.

So HOW can the rest of us learn to deal with it? How can we train our brains?

Flex Your Mind All the Time To Battle Mental Fatigue

train your brain to run further

Photo by asoggetti

Every time you leave your front door to train is an opportunity to train your mind. Maybe it’s an extra rep or set, maybe it’s an extra hill climb, maybe it’s a spontaneous extra five miles. It could be forcing yourself to train in the rain or the cold or it could be sticking to your routine on days when you just want to sit on the couch.

Neuroscientists have known for a long time that repetitive behavior builds and strengthens neural circuitry around that behavior.

When it comes to mental fortitude, that means that every time you push yourself when you don’t want to, or you take one more step when you don’t think you can take another, that circuit becomes stronger. The stronger the circuit, the easier it is to perform the task.

This works both ways. Every time you think, “I can skip out today” you build circuitry around that belief, making it more likely to activate in the future.

What’s more, your brain has a nearly infinite capacity to build and wire circuitry. While there is a finite limit to what your physical body can achieve, your brain and all 100 billion neurons inside of it can do just about anything your train it to do.

Have a Plan for Tough Moments

What I love about endurance events is that mentally everyone gets to a place where they try to justify stopping.

Do you have a plan for what you’ll say to yourself at hour 15 of a 24-hour foot race? How about at mile 350 of a 450-mile bikepacking trip?

When fatigue sets in, your ability to make rational decisions suffers. At the hardest hour of an ultra-endurance event athletes are usually in physical discomfort and are a complete emotional wreck. That can snowball into a ‘Did Not Finish’ before they’re really ready.

In the same thread, that delirium causes some athletes to fail to recognize when they are in trouble. Some athletes push through the pain to the point of self-harm.

So how do you know when to quit, and when to push through?

That’s such a difficult question to answer because we’re all so different. And in a physically demanding situation, you’re really the only person who knows what’s going on in your body.

Personally, I battle the decision-making stage with a series of questions.

What To Ask Yourself Before You Quit

Runner resting on a dirt path.

Photo by Emma Simpson

Question 1: Am I hungry?

  • Those tough decisions are much easier to make with a few calories in your stomach. Lot’s of endurance athletes say something along the lines of, “Never make a decision on an empty stomach.” Sage advice.

Question 2: Am I in pain?

  • If “yes,” then the next question is, “Will I damage myself by continuing on?”

Question 3: Can I improve my situation?

  • Do I need food or water? Should I take a one-hour nap? Would a clean face and a fresh pair of socks make me feel rejuvenated? How about a little music?

Question 4: Is the weather a problem, or am I just uncomfortable?

  • Weather can be a big factor in any endurance sport. Dealing with cold, hot, wet, and everything in between can be mentally taxing. It can also be dangerous. Ask yourself if you’re just experiencing discomfort, or if it might be in your best interest to save it for another day.

Question 5: How will I feel tomorrow about my decision to quit?

  • Often, just pretending to have a conversation with my future self is enough to keep going.  

If you have a big endurance event coming up, you can use your workouts as a time to think about a set of questions to ask when all you want is a hot shower and a cheeseburger.

Imagine what you’ll be feeling at that moment and consider what might motivate you.  

Don’t Forget to Enjoy It

Mountain bikers racing through the Black Hills of South Dakota

Maybe question #6 is, “Why am I out here in the first place?” Ultra-endurance events are loosely classified as an event over 6 hours. For some events, that time looks like weeks or months.

That translates into a lot of wasted time if you aren’t enjoying yourself while you’re out there. Most of us won’t see a podium or set a new record—so that means we are out there for a different reason.

In my mind, it’s a better reason.

Maybe your reason is to explore a new destination. Perhaps you want to push yourself in a new way. Maybe you are simply wondering if you can push yourself to an extreme, and you’re hoping that experience affects your daily life in a positive way.

Set yourself up to appreciate the experience. Life is too short and ultra-endurance sports are too challenging to be miserable the entire time.

Bring along items that will make you happy. For me, that means a bunch of podcasts and great music, paired with really good chocolate.

Always remember, you signed up for the event—and it’s going to take a while to finish—so you may as well enjoy yourself while you’re out there!

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