The link between mental and physical fatigue is something that we are, really, just exploring. I’ve for a long time argued that athletes who have jobs in executive positions, who remain at a desk most of the day, but still make a lot of decisions, struggle to commit to training as much as athletes who might be more active in their day-to-day lives, even labourers/contractors. Of course the physical toll of each person's daily life is different, and we wouldn’t expect the very active individual to have an advantage, but the amataeur athlete that has a lot of important decisions to make, often has a harder time even getting on the bike.
In this blog post, I discuss:
- What is decision fatigue
- How decision fatigue affects everyone
- Comparisons between decision and mental fatigue versus physical fatigue
- How decision fatigue affects athletic performance
- How to cope with decision fatigue as an endurance athlete
- How to reduce decision fatigue
- How to adapt to decision fatigue
- How to get help
What is decision fatigue
The Wikipedia definition of decision fatigue is: “In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.”.
It goes beyond simply just making decisions, decision fatigue can also be caused by:
- Being hugely affected or affecting others by decisions you make
- Having negative consequences such as having to fire someone, punish your kids or even tell someone “no”
- Stressful or complex decisions
- A classic example might be relating to money; budgeting, borrowing or lending money, talking to others about your financial situation
You might be thinking that this doesn’t really apply to you, but here is a more common list of decisions, that I bet you make, that contribute towards decision fatigue:
- What to wear in the morning
- What to eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks
- What time to exercise/train today
- What training to do today (where a Spokes Coach can help!)
- Where to walk the dog today and how many times, or who is responsible for that
- What the kids will eat for breakfast
- Any decision relating to work (how many do you make per day??)
- What to watch on television
- This list is literally infinite…
Comparisons between decision and mental fatigue versus physical fatigue
Funnily enough, they are actually quite similar. Symptoms of physical fatigue (with thanks to BetterHealth) can include:
- Chronic tiredness or sleepiness
- Sore or aching muscles
- Muscle weakness
- Slowed reflexes and responses
- Impaired decision-making and judgement
- Moodiness, such as irritability
With symptoms of decision or mental fatigue (with thanks to HelpGuide) including:
- Sense of failure and self-doubt
- Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
- Detachment, feeling alone in the world
- Loss of motivation
- Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
- Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment
Very similar, very negative lists.
Anecdotally, the main difference between the two might be that physical fatigue is easier to identify and be mindful of that decision fatigue; which tends to sneak up on us.
Ultimately, they have one thing in common; your athletic performance suffers when you are fatigued.
How decision fatigue affects athletic performance
Well… decision fatigue affects your athletic performance, negatively...
This study ‘The effects of mental fatigue on sport-related performance’ by Benjamin Pageaux and Romuald Lepers found that:
“...it appears that mental fatigue impairs endurance performance, motor skills performance and decision-making performance...These observations suggest that mental fatigue impairs sport-related performance during exercises performed at a submaximal intensity and not during exercises performed at maximal and supramaximal intensity. The negative impact of mental fatigue on submaximal exercises seems to be mediated by an increase in perception of effort.”
You had probably guessed it already, but if we want to maximise our performance, we need to be looking at decision fatigue in the same light as we do physical fatigue. As a coach, I look to reduce the amount of time my athletes spend on additional, non-training, sources of physical load, and this is the same with their mental load too.
Which leads us on to the all important question...
How to cope with decision fatigue as an endurance athlete
In order to ensure you are able to focus on training, give it your absolute all, and remain motivated when the times are tough, we need to ensure that you are coping with decision fatigue in your day-to-day life. Thankfully, this is fairly easy and I have two main techniques which I suggest you start to consider.
How to reduce decision fatigue
Firstly, and somewhat obviously, we can simply look to reduce the amount of decision fatigue you experience on a day-to-day basis. This might look like:
The little decisions might be the ones that really stack up, but you can simplify them even further. An example might be matching outfits once you’ve washed them - rather than having to pick a shirt, trousers, jumper, or jersey, shorts, socks when you are getting dressed - simply match them post-cleaning. Another example might be what you eat, if you can’t simplify each meal so you eat the same thing daily, maybe meal delivery service is for you.
This might be easier if you have people who work for you, but it can work in a family environment too if your children are at an age where they would benefit from increased responsibility. If your kids are ready to start being more responsible for themselves, picking their own clothes or what they eat are great examples, giving them that task will be great for you both. If you don’t have employees or children, see if you can get help in your community, for example you might find a group of people who will share cooking loads - you cook once per week for everyone and take turns.
Limit your options
Reducing the amount of decisions you can make might be a game changer for you. This might look like donating a load of your wardrobe to charity so you have less clothes to pick from, or it could be buying the same clothes so you wear the same (but different) clothes every day. Not having too much food in the fridge and pantry might limit your options for what to cook for dinner - and so on.
How to adapt to decision fatigue
Make simple decisions later in the day
Making the simple decisions later in the day, perhaps after you’ve trained, will help you avoid adding unwanted stress the next day. This might include what you are going to wear tomorrow, what you will eat, or what to do with the kids.
Make big decisions earlier in the day
Like doing a big training session later in the day, when you are already fairly tired, you might be better off making your big decisions earlier. This will be when you are most mentally fresh, and hopefully able to recover from it. Examples might be to do with budgeting and money, or choosing to have a difficult conversation with someone.
Time your training
We know that maximal training, such as strength training in the gym, isn’t affected by decision fatigue as much as endurance training, so the logic here would be to make attempts to do your bike work in the morning, when you are most fresher, and your strength work in the evening. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but worth considering.
If you’re a regular reader of my blogs, or follow me on social media (@pavbryan), you will know just how highly I rate meditation and mindfulness practises. If you make one change following reading this, please make it introducing this training into your life! Give it time and properly commit to it, I guarantee it will change your life.
How to get help
Ultimately, none of this should be too hard for you to get stuck into, but I understand that, for some, it might seem quite daunting or overwhelming - at least to get started. Thankfully, both myself and our coaches are all experts in making your training work around your life. If you’re in need of a helping hand you can even have a free consultation, just to ask a few simple questions.