When it comes to the many factors that play a role in endurance, one, often overlooked factor is the brain. However, scientists have long been aware of the brain’s effect on fatigue and exercise tolerance, dating as far back as the late 19th century, when Angelo Mosso, an Italian physiologist, worked on researching muscle fatigue. Mosso, who was a key figure in discovering what we now know today as “the lactate threshold,” posited that a person’s mental state or will has a direct effect on muscular fatigue.

Numerous studies over the years have suggested the same idea. In one 2009 study, volunteers were first asked to complete a difficult cognitive task, and then, 90 minutes later, do a cycling workout. The mentally fatigued volunteers ended up struggling with the cycling and quit earlier than the volunteers from the control group who were not mentally fatigued.

In another study from 2003 called Developing Competitive Endurance Performance Using Mental Skills Training, researchers studied athletes who partook in an intensive mental skills training routine before competing in a triathlon. This consisted of four days of skills tests specifically constructed to increase mental endurance, utilizing things like relaxation, positive self-talk, short and long term goal setting, and guided imagery. The researchers wanted to see if the ability to calm yourself down, focus, and visualize success, would lead to not just a noticeably improved athletic performance, but one performed at a higher level of energy. And what did they find? The athletes who completed the intensive mental skills training experienced “maximal or near-maximal energy” throughout the triathlon.

Of course, there are many other important things that factor into endurance and performance, like doing the right kind of stretches and drills, adhering to proper form and not overtraining, and of course, getting enough sleep, but there’s also clearly something to this whole idea of training your brain, so why not try it out and see what happens? There are numerous things you can do to train your brain, and some challenging cognitive activities include word and card games, puzzles and other games like chess, reading of course, and anything else that requires hand-eye coordination. Meditation is also a great option here; as Tawnee Prazak once said on Get Over Yourself: “Meditation trains your mind to do what you ask it to do.” 

Keep all this in mind the next time you’re gearing up for a workout on a day when you’re already feeling kind of mentally spent, and let me know if you start to notice any differences in your workouts when you exercise on days when you’re feeling mentally strong and sharp.

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