This Fascinating article in on the New York Times website explains how a recent study has identified the link between metal fatigue and a marked reduction in athletic endurance.
I won’t go into great detail here as I really recommend that you read the article but the study basically compared the physical performance of 10 athletes, both after they were in a state of relaxation and after they had completed a mentally taxing exercise. Whilst in a state of mental fatigue, the athletes muscles continued to perform effectively but their perceived levels of effort were much higher. They felt as though they were having to try much harder to achieve the same work load.
This suggests, for example, that if you were to ride a bike for 30 miles at 16 miles per hour after a period of intense study or mental stress, you would find the ride noticeably more difficult and tiring than if you rode the same route at the same speed whilst feeling mentally fresh and relaxed. Your muscles would be capable of achieving the same output and would not be working any harder, but you would feel more fatigued, both mentally AND physically.
This made me think about the problems created by nerves and anxiety during competition. In the past, I have been prone to getting way too stressed out before an event and obsessively ruminating about it right up until the start line and I’m convinced that this has had an adverse affect on my performance. I think that most people would accept that mental fatigue can influence decision making, co-ordination and the application of skill but I find this new link with perceived levels of effort fascinating.
The study highlights the importance of mental preparation before training and particularly before competition. Where possible, avoiding mental stress and fatigue before exercise may enhance performance and using techniques like relaxation exercises or meditation may provide tangible performance benefits as well as improving your mental state.
The study was pretty small and I look forward to seeing more work on this subject which may help us further understand what is happening here.