That tiredness might be all in your head. Here’s how to work past a mental block if your muscles still have some energy.
What makes your muscles want to give up when you’re trying to hold a plank, go the distance on a long run, or do speed drills? Well, research shows that they may not actually be tapped out — but instead are getting mixed messages from your brain. In other words, when you’re putting in the workout time to train your muscles, it’s your mind you may actually need to condition to get past that moment when you want to quit. That’s right: Mental fatigue can seriously affect your workout.
Here’s exactly what’s going on, and how to prevent your brain from getting in the way of your gains.
What’s Happening When Mental Fatigue Inhibits Your Workout
When you work out, your muscles and your brain are in direct communication. With every step or rep, your muscles are sending signals to the brain, telling it what they need in order to keep going — namely, oxygen and other fuel — and reporting their level of fatigue. The brain then responds, adjusting muscle contraction demands accordingly, says Markus Amann, Ph.D., a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Utah. “If we can train our brain to respond to muscle signals in a certain way, we can actually push harder and for longer,” he explains.
The first step is to understand your fatigue triggers. The signal to throw in the towel during a workout can come from one of two places: your central nervous system or your muscles. What experts call “central fatigue” originates from the former region, while “peripheral fatigue” originates from the latter. You’ve likely experienced heavy legs in the last miles of a race or trembling arms as you lower yourself for a final set of push-ups in boot camp — that’s peripheral fatigue, aka a decrease in your muscles’ ability to generate power.
It was previously assumed that peripheral fatigue dictates a certain threshold at which your muscles give up. But research in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that the brain can actually underestimate how much gas you have left in the tank, and in response, ask your muscles for less effort.
In the study, cyclists completed three rides at varying intensities: At sprint speed for 4 kilometers, at a race pace for 20 kilometers, and at a challenging endurance pace for 40 kilometers. Using a sophisticated electrical stimulation technique, the scientists were able to measure central and peripheral fatigue after each ride to pinpoint which may have triggered the muscles to give up. Peripheral fatigue peaked during the short bouts and central fatigue was the lowest, but central fatigue was at its height in the longer distance, meaning the brain reduced action from the muscles even though they hadn’t actually maxed out.
Amann conducted another study that backs up this theory: He injected exercisers with a spinal nerve block that inhibited signals from traveling from the legs to the brain and had them cycle as fast as they could on a stationary bike for 3.1 miles. At the end of the ride, every cyclist had to be helped off the bike because of the exertion; some couldn’t even walk. “Because their central fatigue system was blocked, the cyclists were able to push far past their normal limits,” says Amann. “Their muscles fatigued nearly 50 percent more than they would have had the communication system warned them they were approaching this state,” he continues.
How to Push Through Mental Workout Fatigue
Of course, if you ever feel dizzy, nauseated, or like you might pass out, pump the brakes. But a lot of the time, your muscles aren’t always the boss of your workout, and they will push harder for longer if your brain asks them to do so. Want to test it out? These three methods will help you to game your mental fatigue systems so you can break through invisible barriers to your next fitness level.
Cheat the System
At the start of a long run or race, you feel energized and pumped. But hit mile seven, and every subsequent mile feels like a drag and you start to slow. Yes, physical bummers — such as glycogen depletion and buildup of metabolites that make your muscles feel pooped — exacerbate this struggle, but not enough to account for the added difficulty, according to Samuele Marcora, Ph.D., a professor of sport science at the University of Bologna in Italy. “Performance is not directly limited by muscle fatigue but rather by perception of effort,” he says. “We create our own limits in large part because of what our brain thinks we’re feeling rather than what may actually be going on deep in the trenches of our muscles,” adds Marcora.
Marcora’s research, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, shows that what matters most is the internal battle between your subjective sense of effort and the mounting desire to just quit. In the study, 16 cyclists rode to exhaustion after 90 minutes of either a demanding cognitive task or a mindless task. The riders who had tired their brains before the workout demonstrated significantly shorter times to exhaustion. The mentally fatigued group also rated their perception of effort much higher during the cycling test, leading them to stop earlier than the rest. The upshot? Any trick that reduces that perception of effort would improve your endurance performance.
First, keep the upbeat thoughts coming as you sweat it out. “Tell yourself powerfully positive statements, like, ‘You will definitely make it up this hill,'” suggests Marcora. Next, make your brain associate exercise with something that feels good. (The “fake it until you make it” approach totally applies; positive thinking really does work.) “The muscles that contract to make a frown are actually a reflection of how hard your body feels it’s working. Try to smile during tough stretches of your workout so that the muscles that trigger thoughts of exhaustion are less active,” he says. Just as with your muscles, when you lighten your mental load, you can go longer and stronger. (Music helps, too! Here are some of the best running playlists to power you to a new P.R.)
Power Through the Hard Parts
During your everyday hustle — and even your average daily workout — your muscles are getting plenty of oxygen from your heart and lungs to help power their movement. But when you go hard, this aerobic system can’t keep up with the energy demands and your muscles have to switch to their auxiliary power, eventually blowing through their fuel stores and causing a buildup of those aforementioned metabolites.
Cue: fatigue. But remember, quivering muscles are just a heads-up that you’re approaching exhaustion — they’re not necessarily your real limit. Your brain will always keep your muscles from zeroing out to preserve an emergency energy store, but you can teach your brain to respond less aggressively to the metabolite buildup, according to Amann. For example, practice makes you impervious: The more you repeat cycling at sprint speed, the more inured your muscles will be to the output and the less likely they will be to beg your brain to stop. And raising the motivational stakes of your workout — for instance, swapping that cycling class for a bike race — can preoccupy your brain so it doesn’t hit the panic button at the first sign of stiffness.
Quench Your Mind
The right beverage can help your brain to give you more “go” power during exercise. For a mid-workout game changer, swish and spit out a carbohydrate drink such as Gatorade to see a performance boost. According to a study in the Journal of Physiology, cycling participants who wet their mouths with a sports drink finished a time trial at least a minute ahead of the control group. Functional MRI scans showed that reward centers in the brain were activated when drinking the carbohydrate-heavy drink, so the body subsequently thought it was getting more fuel and, as a result, pushed harder.
But for those who prefer to swallow your beverages, caffeine can also work wonders on brain drain. “Research shows that having two or three cups of coffee before a workout kicks your head into high gear, requiring less brain activity to produce muscle contractions,” says Marcora. Your movement becomes more automatic and seems less daunting, and your workout and body suddenly feel limitless.