We all have been there, whether you are an athlete in great shape or someone who is trying to lead a more active lifestyle and started exercising. I’m talking about that feeling of “I’m done”. I’m talking about that point when your body tells you (screams to you, may be more appropriate) to STOP! That moment when your body decides that it was your last meter, your last rep, your last effort… Today I’ll be talking about fatigue, or what scientists often call “perceived exertion”.
There are some physiological explanations for why our body “shuts down” and we are not able to carry on pushing. However, in this post I won’t talk to you about physiology. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the psychology of exhaustion.
Is it possible to delay that point of exhaustion? Do our thoughts, emotions or attention have something to do with the rapid approach or delay of that exhaustion point?
The answer is Yes! And I’m pretty sure you have also experienced your mind’s power when it has to deal with exhaustion. Do you remember that time when working out was simply impossible? When even the usual distances or weights were too long or too heavy? It may be the case that you had a hard day; you were worried about things in your life or any other reason that simply prevented you from pushing yourself to the limit. But the very same “mind power” that sometimes makes your exercise nearly impossible could be used in your favour to delay fatigue.
In sport psychology one of the most researched factors that affect the subjective experience of fatigue is attention. There are several studies backing up the idea that when we over-think or are highly conscious on movements that we master, our performance will be affected. Phrases like “paralysis by analysis”, “don’t think, just do it” or the idea that sometimes we should just play or do a skill on “auto pilot”, portray the negative effects of being too conscious of the details of our movements.
Naturally, there are benefits of having a high internal focus in some circumstances. For example, when you are learning a new skill, there’s a strong probability that you are highly focused on your movements; how your body is moving and feeling. However, when we talk about endurance, having a high internal focus may be detrimental for our performance.
One of the best sports that exemplify this relation between attentional focus and endurance is running. In 2009, Schücker and colleagues presented a study where they examined the influence of attentional focus in running economy (oxygen consumption at a set running speed). They found that manipulating the participants’ attentional focus either internally (breathing or running movements) or externally (surroundings) affected their movement economy and endurance. Those trained runners who were told to pay attention to a movie of a running course from the perspective of a runner, yielded the highest running economy and subsequently were able to endure more, than the runners who were concentrated on their breathing or their running movements.
One of the explanations behind these results is that when we are focusing on certain muscles of our body we are actually increasing the neuromuscular activity in those regions. This additional activation of muscle fibers requires higher energy consumption, which makes us fatigue faster (Zachry et al., 2005). Additionally, the theories of conscious control and movement execution (Master & Maxwell, 2008) support that when we are running it is possible that being concentrated on the movement impairs the automatic control of the movements and results in a less economic running style that is accompanied by higher oxygen consumption.
So now you know that if you feel you are getting tired, chances are that you are overly focused on your body feelings. Try to concentrate in external stimuli like your surroundings or the music that is playing in your headphones. By doing this, you can trick your body to push a little bit harder.
The next time you watch endurance sports like marathon running or cycling, where many of those remarkable athletes simply collapse when they cross the finish line, rest assured that their bodies screamed long before at how much pain, discomfort and fatigue they are feeling. But instead of focusing on their heavy breathing or their soreness, they focused on other stimuli outside their bodies and were able to push their bodies that extra bit needed to cross the line.
I would like to close this post by mentioning a huge CAUTION. Heavy breathing, soreness and fatigue in general are alarms our body has to tell us that we are reaching a point where we need to stop or slow down, if not we can harm ourselves. This post is not intended to tell you to overlook how your body feels, thereby getting injured. You can always push yourself a little bit more, but we all have a (safe) limit.
You may be asking yourself, “didn’t he say the complete opposite some years ago in a previous post?” Well, yes and No. I’m still a supporter of the mindfulness approach and both of these posts are “mindfulness-compatible”. The first article talked about submaximal efforts and here we are talking about pushing yourself to the limit. All in all, what I imply in both articles is to have a non-judgmental attitude, be able to keep working at your best in spite of the uncomfortable sensations/emotions/thoughts, and to pay attention with purpose. Whether you are exercising at a submaximal level being mindful of the sensations in your body or you are pushing yourself to the limit by purposefully engaging with (and enjoying) your surroundings, your attentional focus will have an impact on your performance.