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Beat Brain Fatigue and Run Strong

Posted by: on May, 14 2012

Mental Energy

Tired and cranky? Ten simple ways to beat brain fatigue and run strong.

By Mackenzie Lobby From the July 2011 issue of Runner’s World

Amanda Rice knows how hard it is to run at the end of a long day. On top of her duties as a U.S. naval officer, Rice, 27, is in her final year of dental school and makes annual trips abroad to assist with community dentistry in places like Guatemala and Samoa. She’s also a 2:44 marathoner and 2012 Olympic Trials qualifier. “Sometimes I’m so tired from treating patients all day,” she says, “that I wonder if I should just skip my workout.”

Mental fatigue can negatively impact physical performance, according to a study out of Bangor University’s School of Sport, Health, and Exercise Sciences. Researchers split athletes of similar capabilities into two groups prior to an exhaustive cycling exercise. One group performed a tough 90-minute cognitive task, and the other watched documentaries. Once on the bikes, the mentally tasked riders displayed significantly less stamina than the movie watchers, and felt the exercise was more difficult. Their physical performance suffered because their brains were tired.

The challenge, then, is to find ways to change your thought process and realize that your body can handle a workout. Refocus, acknowledge that you’d rather crash on the couch, but put on your running shoes anyway, says Marshall Mintz, Psy.D., a clinical and sports psychologist. “Once you get going, even if it’s for an easy three-miler, it almost always feels good to be running,” he says.

Deciding between the remote control and your running shoes? It isn’t easy to get out the door without a clear reason to run. “If you can’t answer, Why am I doing this?, you won’t last long,” says Rick Lovett, a running coach and coauthor of Alberto Salazar’s Guide to Road Racing. He suggests keeping a training log that includes your goals and the reasons you run, whether that’s to reduce stress, or for friendship or better health.
ENERGY SOLUTION: When you feel the urge to call it quits at the end of a tough day, pull out your log and review your lists. Staring at your plans in black-and-white will make it tougher to lounge. Rice, for example, keeps the dates of several shorter races leading up to her goal marathon prominently marked in her log. “It energizes me to see that I have those little races ahead of me,” she says.

“You have to be organized in order to be good at several things,” says Rice. By penciling in your run for a certain time, you arm yourself with the necessary energy to get through it. That said, adds Mintz, be prepared with a backup workout plan if something unexpected comes up.
ENERGY SOLUTION: If work demands that you stay later than planned, go for a shorter run. If a sick child leaves you homebound, work on your stretching strength training while they sleep and save your run for tomorrow. “It’s okay for that daily structure to be flexible from one day to the next,” says Mintz.

When you’re running alone, it’s easy to end up ruminating about those new clients at work or your kid’s report card. This takes all the fun out of it. When you run with other people, the social banter gives you a mental timeout. Research out of the University of Rochester in New York demonstrated that a positive social circle helps foster motivation and a greater commitment to exercise, compared with going it alone.
ENERGY SOLUTION: Keep the numbers of some fellow running pals on speed dial, and don’t think twice to call one or two of them spur of the moment. Chances are they’re having a similar day and would love the camaraderie. And if they can’t meet you, at least they’ll be able to give you a pep talk. “With any kind of fitness program,” Mintz explains, “there’s a greater likelihood of success if you’re collaborating with someone.”