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Brain Training for Endurance – What is it and Does it Work?
Endurance athletes—distance runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes, and others—know that a big part of the battle is mental. To get through a long race, or even a long training session, requires mental fitness and endurance, not just physical.
Anyone who has struggled through a workout or a tough athletic event knows it’s easy to quit. Your brain reminds you the pain and discomfort could be over as soon as you give up and stop. The best athletes are able to ignore that inner voice and keep going, but how?
Brain training and mental strength may be the key to being a better athlete. Even for your clients who are not endurance athletes, this kind of mental resilience can be beneficial, helping them get through difficult workouts to achieve better results.
Why is Brain Training for Endurance Important?
You’re a personal trainer, not a psychologist, so why should you be concerned about your clients’ brains? Mental strength helps people in all areas of their lives, not just in athletics and fitness.
Ask your clients about the last time they gave themselves a pep talk.
- Was it in the last half mile of a 5k?
- Was it before a big presentation at work?
- Or maybe they geared themselves up to get past nerves ahead of a first date.
All of these are examples of using the mind to overcome something challenging. If you can train your brain to get past fear, discomfort, self-doubt, nervousness, and other negative emotions, you can do more, and be more successful.
For fitness, this means you can help your endurance athletes perform better in their next marathon or Ironman. For other clients, brain training can be just as important for enduring difficult workouts and reaching goals sooner.
Does Brain Training Work to Reduce Fatigue?
It sounds reasonable that working on mental strength and resilience would help you improve athletic and endurance performance by helping you resist fatigue for longer. But there’s actual evidence that mental training reduces fatigue and perceived effort in endurance trials. Take a look at some of the research that proves it works.
A study1 from the Ministry of Defence in the United Kingdom worked with 35 participants to compare standard endurance training to standard endurance training conducted at the same time as brain endurance training (BET).
Half of the participants engaged in computer tasks requiring mental focus while working out. Each group had the same tough endurance cycling workout, but only one included the mental task. They all worked out three times a week.
After 12 weeks both groups performed a time to exhaustion trial, cycling as long as possible at 80 percent of VO2 max. The men who engaged in BET during training improved their time to exhaustion by up to 126 percent, much more than the other group.
The possible explanation is that the participants who had to engage in a mental task during workouts trained themselves to be able to tolerate greater effort on the bike. With the mental challenge taken away in the final test, cycling seemed easier and they could endure it and resist fatigue longer.
Training the brain may improve physical endurance, but the opposite is also true. Read this ISSA blog on how working out improves brain connections.
How to Train the Brain to Persist
So brain training for endurance is real. It can help improve performance. But what does it look like in practice?
Here are some things you can do, and recommend for your clients, to become a better athlete, to endure and battle fatigue, and to avoid giving in to the discomfort during a long race, event, or workout.
Brain Training for Endurance Means a Mentally-Stimulating Workout
One thing you can do is try to mimic the results of the endurance research. You may not have a lab setup with a simple computer game to play while cycling, but you can do things that are mentally stimulating while working out. The researchers suggest any long effort at 80 to 85 percent of maximum effort is a good time to include mental tasks.
Try listening to and really focusing on an interesting or challenging podcast or audiobook, for instance. Focus on the story and not letting your mind wander. Not only will it take your mind off the discomfort of a tough workout, but it can also act to train the brain for longer endurance trials going forward.
For some types of training, using a spin bike or a treadmill at the gym for instance, you can set up a tablet to mimic what the participants in the research did. Look for apps that have simple brain training games. Start with the easier tasks and try to focus on them while working out for as long as possible. With time and practice you should find that time to fatigue, both mental and physical, gets longer.
Or, a Mentally-Stimulating Pre-Workout
Another way this might work to help you train your brain for greater endurance is to fatigue the mind before a training session. In training for a marathon, for instance, a typical weekend workout is a long run, maybe 16 miles.
Try performing some of those simple brain training computer tasks or games before the training run. Engage in the tasks for 20, 30, even 60 minutes, as long as it takes to get the brain fatigued. Then, going out for the run you’ll find it more difficult. Your brain is already tired and ready to quit.
This may seem counterintuitive, but there is evidence that adding in some of this kind of training can help endurance athletes build up their mental muscle so to speak. Running already fatigued forces you to push that mental muscle harder and to extend the time to exhaustion. Start slowly with this kind of training, with just a little mental training before a medium run and building up to longer sessions.
Endurance runners need strength training too. Check out this ISSA blog to get your runners lifting and getting stronger and faster.
Add in Visualization and Positive Self-Talk
The idea of training the brain to fatigue is new. It may revolutionize endurance training. But there are also some tried and true methods for improving your mental state before and during difficult workouts, races, and athletic events.
Visualization is a classic strategy many athletes use to focus on an event. The night before, morning of, and immediately before a race are good times to close your eyes and picture yourself in it. Visualize specifics, like how you’ll start the event, getting through a particularly difficult part, or crossing the finish line. Imagine yourself doing well, meeting goals.
During an event, positive self-talk can convince your body and brain to keep going. Most people find their own unique ways of doing this, but the overall message should be positive and encouraging: “You can do this,” “finish strong,” “halfway through, almost there,” and so on. Practice this during training sessions, especially using them to silence negative thoughts.
Practice Objectivity and Focusing on the Moment
The brain can get overwhelmed in the middle of an endurance event, getting all emotional and stressed. During training, practice being objective about challenges and goals, and try to take the emotion out of it. When you feel like quitting, ask why and reject any emotional feelings like fear and doubt. Instead, focus on the objective: “Yes, my legs are aching, but I can probably push through a little longer.”
Another aspect of endurance training and events that can cause the brain to get overwhelmed is anticipation. You think about how far away the finish line is, what your time is going to be, and how you’ll feel at the end. This leads to stress and earlier fatigue. Practice focusing only on what your body feels like and where you are in each moment to be able to push past fatigue and doubt.
Brain training is for real. Evidence backs up its usefulness in athletic performance, and endurance in particular. For you, for clients who are athletes, and for your amateur endurance clients, try some of these strategies to battle fatigue and improve mental strength.
Interested in training athletes? Consider completing the ISSA course in Strength and Conditioning certification.
1. Staiano, W., Merlini, M., and Marcora S.M. (2015, May). A Randomized Controlled Trial of Brain Endurance Training (BET) to Reduce Fatigue During Endurance Exercise. ACSM Annual Meeting. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305392444_A_Randomized_Controlled_Trial_of_Brain_Endurance_Training_BET_to_Reduce_Fatigue_During_Endurance_Exercise