Just as much as athletic performance is physical, it's mental. It’s about pushing the bounds of your potential, finding out new thresholds, max effort, and striving for peak performance. After all, whether you’re an elite level athlete or everyday gym go-er, the goal is to reap the most reward from your efforts, right? Well, we’re here to tell you about the missing link to optimizing athletic performance - the psychological impact of mental fatigue.
What is Fatigue?
Fatigue during exercise is simply the “inability to maintain a given exercise intensity”. [R] As you’re probably familiar, pushing through fatigue during a workout, competition, or training session has big benefits at a high risk. This is where you grow mentally, but can risk your athletic performance physically.
This is referred to as perceived effort - you might think you can do it (perceived effort) whereas physically, you’re unable to produce high quality and high magnitudes of muscular power. [R]
Whether you’ve depleted your energy stores, accumulated too many metabolites within the muscle, or didn’t fuel properly with your nutrition prior to your exercise session, fatigue is not only a physical result but a psychological one, rooted in the central nervous system (CNS), causing mental fatigue.
What is Mental Fatigue?
Not only does your body have limits, but your mind does too. Exercise is a great way to push the bounds of both your physical and mental potential, but only so much at a time until you completely deplete your ability to perform.
Mental fatigue is a psychological perspective of perceived and actual performance during exercise. [R] It can be used for good, by increased the perceived effort needed to complete a lift, run, or workout, whereas it can also be used for bad, working against the athlete mentally, making the perceived value of the ultimate reward, not worth it. This can be referred to as the ‘dual nature’ of mental fatigue. [R]
Mental fatigue correlates directly with your minds perceived effort for a particular task, activating or deactivating the inhibition centers and facilitative brain centers, influencing your next step. To simplify this, think of mental fatigue as the hand that affects perceived effort and reward, especially when it comes to optimizing athletic performance.
What is Perceived Exertion? The Carrot on the String Mentality
Perceived exertion is the mental aspect of training. That little voice in your head that either tells you to ‘keep going’ or to ‘give up’. It’s the mental perspective of how hard your body is working. An athlete’s drive is a direct result of their perception of the effort required and the perceived value of the reward that the activity will bring them. In the brain you have two mechanics that are facilitated by mental fatigue, thus, influencing perceived exertion: a mental inhibition and a mental facilitation system. [R] Mental fatigue can inhibit an athlete's actions during exercise, by increasing perceived exertion, whereas it can also facilitate an athlete’s actions by increasing motivation towards a reward. [R]
This is the carrot on a string perspective - if the carrot is something that the rabbit doesn’t want, the mental fatigue will increase the perceived exertion it takes to get the carrot, discouraging the rabbit. [R] On the other hand, if the rabbit really wants the carrot, despite physical exertion, the rabbit’s perceived exertion will increase its motivation to earn the carrot. The same can be said for athletes during intense training sessions, exercise programs, and competitions.
Mental Fatigue and Motivation - What’s The Difference?
In behavioral neuroscience research as well as psychology, the terms ‘motivation’ and ‘drive’ have been used alternatively in describing the direction, intensity, and persistence of behavior during exercise. [R] Where these two terms begin to differentiate between one another is seen when they begin to affect athletes’ choices and actions during exercise.
Motivation may be what incites (or discourages) an athlete to take action, set a new goal, or endure a new workout, whereas mental fatigue is going to be what keeps them going, or stops them, during that particular training endeavor. Motivation may also be seen as the drive an athlete has and mental fatigue is the threshold in which that athlete can cognitively perform during a physical performance or exercise.
Why Does Mental Fatigue Matter?
Mental fatigue is worthy of consideration for an athletes performance simply because it reduces cognitive performance during physical exertion. In other words, when an athlete has a low threshold for mental fatigue, they perform poorly, make poor decisions, and have low cognitive functioning. [R] If you workout, or are an athlete, I’m sure you can understand how this can implicate you.
Think of box jumps for example. Ever realize that the only time the box eats your shins is when you didn’t focus on that ONE single jump? It’s because you become mentally fatigued. You didn’t make the right decision (to stop) and you failed (your jump) resulting in an injury. For endurance athletes, this can mean big consequences, like failed performances or serious injuries (not like broken shins aren’t serious or anything). [R]
Combatting the “I Can’t Do It” Mentality
A decreased drive to perform during exercise is a direct result and deleterious effect of mental fatigue. The “I can’t do it” mental barrier that we put up during exercise because it’s hard, is a direct result of mental fatigue. This theory has been proven in clinically studies where participants with this “I can’t” mentality actually reach their maximal level of perceived exertion and disengaged from the physical task earlier than the athletes who continued on, despite their mental fatigue. Further exhibiting that mental fatigue actually limits exercise tolerance in humans through the higher perception of effort, more so than cardiorespiratory and musculoenergetic mechanisms combined. [R]
How to Reduce Mental Fatigue In Athletes
In order to develop a strong, capable athletic body, one must develop the mind along with it. Some trainers will even argue that “the mind must be developed first, prior to the body”, as said by Charles Poliquin at a Clinical and Scientific Insights (CASI) conference in San Francisco. Neurotransmitters play a big role in mental fatigue and athletic performance, which is at the very root of the “brain before brawn” mentality. While physical skill can be observed through speed, strength, power, coordination, and coordination, less visible (and quite often, less considered) is the raw power of an athlete’s mind, that must be developed to advance in their chosen endeavor.
For example, as printed by Dr. Anderw Coutts in the Journal of Sports Sciences, “team sports place more stress on the brain than any other activity” demanding athletes to “remain vigilant for longe periods, adhering to tactical strategies, and constantly adjusting to changes.” [R] If you’re a coach, trainer, or athlete, who is looking to improve your athlete's or your own peak power output and performance, then you must first understand the role of neurotransmitters, in order to take the necessary steps to optimize athletic performance.
Neurotransmitters, Deficiencies, and Athletic Performance
Neurotransmitters are vital chemical messengers and you can become deficient in them, resulting in lackluster athletic performance and a small threshold for mental fatigue. Neurotransmitters (aka the brain) is also responsible for observing and transmitting physical sensations of the body, telling you how much of what is too much, and when you need to stop. This is often referred to the mental barrier that, when watching elite level athletes compete, seemingly don’t listen to.
Think about it this way - when you’re burning out, your lungs are heaving, you can hear your breathing and you sound like a wheezing dolphin lost out to sea, it’s your mind that is going to tell you if you can keep going, not your body. While performance can be reduced by not getting enough sleep, having too much FaceTime with technology, and not eating enough, Dr. Mitchell Smith from the University of Technology, Sydney, has found in his studies that athletes who experience affect mental performance even more than physical. [R]
There’s a saying that “when the body is too tired, the mind will take over” which isn’t necessarily true. Instead, look at it this way - the body will do anything the mind tells it too, fatigued or not.
Neurotransmitters, CNS Fatigue, and Mental Fatigue - Making The Connection
Without going too far into the science of it, central nervous system fatigue and mental fatigue is a result of an over-exhausted depletion of neurotransmitters in the CNS pathways located upstream of corticospinal neurons. To understand this from a simple, biological perspective, we’re specifically talking about the optimization of three main neurotransmitters to focus on specifically are serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine. [R]
By optimizing neurotransmitters levels, you optimize the way your brain functions, enabling your mind to seamlessly communicate with your body during endurance, high-intensity, or physically demanding exercise bouts. So when you feel like giving up, calling it quits, or screaming the dreaded phrase “I CAN’T DO IT”, keep in mind that it’s your neurotransmitters talking, not your body.
Mental Fatigue & Dopamine
In order to gain a competitive edge, you’re going to want to be able to regulate your dopamine production to consistent, healthy levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gets fired off when you are anticipating a reward. It’s the warm, happy feeling inside that provides you with a surge of energy. It’s responsible for signaling the feelings of reward, pleasure, but more importantly in regards to exercise and sports, it’s what is released when you deal with stress, endure pain, and take risks. [R]
In a study done at the University of Parma in Italy, researchers collected DNA from 50 elite level athletes (Olympic Games or equivalent) and 100 nonprofessional athletes. After comparing genes across the two groups, they narrowed it down to two specific groups: one that regulates levels of cerebral serotonin and one that is involved in breaking down neurotransmitters. The levels of dopamine active transporter or DAT were significantly more common among the elite athletes than in the control. We’re talking almost five times more prevalent in the elite group. [R]
How to Increase Dopamine Naturally
Researchers have found that music can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards, that trigger a dopamine release by activating the brain’s “reward” pathways associated with peak pleasure and performance from exercise. [R]
Foods high in the amino acids tyrosine, phenylalanine, and L-dopa can raise dopamine levels because they’re precursors to dopamine synthesis. [R] They’re found in nuts (almonds and peanuts), soybeans, fruits (bananas, watermelon, and avocado), animal products (yogurt, chicken, eggs, tuna, beef), even coffee and green tea.
Supplements that include vitamin B6 (limiting cofactor in the synthesis of dopamine, serotonin, GABA, noradrenaline, and melatonin [R]) as well as Rhodiola (increases the sensitivity of neurons to the presence of dopamine and serotonin [R]).
We recommend supplementing with ZMT from Swolverine, as it contains 20mg (200% DV) of vitamin B6 and 114mg of Rhodiola in every serving. Sleep better, recover faster, and delay mental fatigue throughout training, with ZMT.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT: ZMT
Mental Fatigue & Acetylcholine
Like dopamine, acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter which is found at the neuromuscular junctions. It’s an amino acid derivative and makes up a sizable portion of the human brain. Its responsibilities include acting as a nerve impulse transmitter and for causing skeletal muscles to contract. It also is a signaling agent for apoptosis (cell death) necessary for an organism to grow and develop. [R]
To increase acetylcholine you can incorporate egg yolks (the most concentrated dietary source), as well as milk, bovine brain, hiring or mackerel, chicken heart, pork, liver, wheat germ, broccoli, soy lecithin, pinto beans, and quinoa. [R]
The easiest and most effective way to improve acetylcholine production in the body is with a nootropic supplement that contains phosphatidylserine. Phosphatidylserine has been demonstrated to be an effective supplement for combating exercise-induced stress and preventing psychological deterioration (mental fatigue) that accompanies it. Studies examining athletes involved in cycling, weight training, and endurance running suggest that supplementing with phosphatidylserine can speed up recovery, prevent muscle soreness, improve well-being, and delay mental fatigue. [R]
We recommend ELITROPE from Swolverine to improve your natural production of acetylcholine because it contains 125mg of phosphatidylserine per serving.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT: ELITROPE
Mental Fatigue & Serotonin
Prolonged exercise is associated with lethargy and loss of motor drive. Low serotonin levels are linked to high levels of perceived effort, lethargy, mental fatigue, and CNS fatigue. Serotonin synthesis actually increases during prolonged exercise, signaling that happy, accomplished feeling, when you’ve put in a good effort during a workout, competition, or training session.
Thanks to a response to increased levels of blood-borne tryptophan (TRP) in the brain, serotonin levels increase during exercise, because TRP is a precursor to serotonin. With TRP circulating at high levels, loosely bound to albumin, it can move across the blood-brain barrier with ease. With a higher level of TRP and serotonin, you can delay mental fatigue, lethargy, a loss of motor drive and even coordination. [R]
How to Increase Serotonin, Naturally
While you cannot get serotonin from food, you can get tryptophan (an amino acid), from high-protein foods. Regular exposure to sunshine can help synthesize serotonin. Supplements that help increase serotonin naturally and safely are St. John’s wort, probiotics, and vitamin D3, all of which you can purchase from Swolverine.
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT: ELITROPE (St. John’s Wort)
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT: PROBIOTIX
RECOMMENDED PRODUCT: Vitamin D3
The Athlete’s Mind Doesn’t Have Room For Mental Fatigue
If you want to become a better athlete, you must be willing to optimize not only physical performance but your mental performance. Regardless of talent or success, one of the biggest things holding people back from their potential is mental fatigue. Those who go farther, achieve more, and perform better, are the ones who have made an investment in not only themselves physically, but mentally. This is what takes players, athletes, and individuals from ‘good’ to ‘great’ — from being ‘something’ to being ‘something else’. Let this article be your sign; the little something extra that you’ve been looking for to optimize your performance. By optimizing your body and your brain, you can stay balanced, positive, and achieve heights that you never imagined before.
The Brain Stack is a premium supplement stack designed to support concentration, drive, and memory. Whether you need extra support for studying long hours, razor-sharp focus while at work, or just a boost in acuity for life and training, The Brain Stack has it all. With impressive, extensively studied ingredients such as Bacopa Monnieri, Ginkgo Biloba, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Turmeric, and Probiotics, you’ll be able to take your brain performance to the next level, both in and out of the gym.
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