Does permanent mental stress affect athletic performance? And if so, what influence can persistent everyday stress and crises have on our athletic performance? “Arm work! Stabilize your hips! Faster!” You run, pushing your body through the winding streets. Drops of sweat make long lines on your forehead. Looking at the clock reveals that you have only run for 20 minutes and are well below your target pace.
Anger, frustration, and despair spread in the stomach like a sip of tea that is too hot. Because it feels like you’re giving everything, but you don’t get any faster for days. It’s like walking through a formidable mass of rubber. Every step takes strength. Where has the weightlessness gone, with which you did your training sessions a few weeks ago? Is it up to you? After all, a lot has happened in the past few weeks.
Since the pandemic spread, you have increased your training schedule to compensate for stress and, at the same time, look after your children who could no longer go to school. At the same time, a stressful office job turned into an even more stressful home office routine, and anyway, how can it be that we have already reached half of 2020 and you have achieved next to nothing of what you manage? All of this can make you tired and drained.
Mental Exhaustion Can Reduce Athletic Performance
Prolonged stress can impact your body, your psyche, and consequently, your athletic performance. Experts speak of “mental fatigue,” that is, mental tiredness or exhaustion, and, according to sports scientist Niklas Ehrhardt, use it to describe a “comprehensive physiological and psychological problem that can also affect athletic performance.”
Sports science is particularly interested in the problem in the area of professional sports. In April 2020, for example, a study on this topic was published in the journal Medicine & Sports in Sports & Exercise. Their results suggest that sustained and strenuous cognitive tasks, such as working long hours at the computer, hurt the performance of professional runners.
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Mental Fatigue Has A More Significant Impact On Runners
According to Ehrhardt, mental fatigue “actually has more of an effect on runners.” That could be because they have a lot of time and the capacity to think while running. Professionals are affected, but ordinary people can also get into a state of mental exhaustion. But how does this show in the body?
“In people who experience a state of mental exhaustion, the body and, above all, the brain is constantly biochemically activated,” explains Ehrhardt, who is currently doing his doctorate at the University of Stuttgart. “By constantly sitting in front of screens, consuming social media, and having to process a lot of information over a short period in meetings, we are exposed to a lot of stimuli,” says the expert. “Sometimes that can be too much. The brain has a processing limit. If this is permanently stressed, it leads to mental fatigue”.
In addition, the environment has a strong influence on our mental state. “Everything we perceive through our senses activates the brain. High noise levels, for example, because you live on a busy street, also affect our nervous system and can drain us.” So there are many reasons why people get into such a state of exhaustion.
Marking Mental Fatigue In Running
Athletes can recognize this, for example, because they are constantly brooding, cannot let go of problems, or are emotionally irritable. A seemingly inexplicable drop in performance can also be an indicator. So if you suddenly can no longer maintain your pace or the interval times seem to crash for no reason, you can ask yourself whether the stress from different sources is just a little too much.
This is important because frustration at the drop in performance can trigger a downward spiral, leading to overtraining, i.e., overloading the body. These stress hormones are in the bloodstream and thus hinder the metabolism of the muscle. This could lead to more excellent lactate formation. The body then takes longer to break down the amount of lactate.
“This also means that the regeneration time required increases, although the load remains the same,”. If you don’t allow your body to take a break, you will take over in the long term.
Few of them know the connection and continue to train as before, or even increase their workload. This can lead to overtraining. But what to do now? The specter of the training break echoes through our heads again.
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Can I Continue Training?
Do not worry. No, mental exhaustion doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to exercise less. So first, take a deep breath. Breathe in. Exhale. Changing the type of training makes the most sense when you recognize this state in yourself or even notice a drop in performance. “The best are intensive units that are short and leave us no room for thought.”
Faster but shorter runs in the forest and off-road also make sense since you set stimuli and force the brain to focus less on the running style, focus on pace, target times, and your problems. You have to perceive the essential things for the moment. So quite banal roots that you could stumble over or a tree that you have to avoid. That can be a kind of reset button for our strained brain, and who doesn’t like running trails?
In addition, however, you should also change other aspects of your everyday life. In the event of a drop in performance, runners should examine their training behavior and identify stress factors from their everyday life and work on actively reducing the stress in their lives. But how can that work? Ehrhardt has three tips for anyone who has recognized signs of mental fatigue:
Yoga, meditation, and autogenic training
Counteracting the constant activation of the brain. This can be done, for example, through yoga, meditation, autogenic training, and progressive muscle relaxation. It is also good to treat the brain to low-stimulus situations regularly. Forests, meadows, and parks are particularly suitable for clearing the brain’s “cache.” It is best to leave the cell phone at home or in your pocket and switch it off.
An afternoon nap is also a method recommended by the expert. You should make sure that you don’t sleep longer than 45 minutes. Otherwise, you will enter a deep sleep phase, after which you will be even more tired than before.
In the past, the treatment with fragrances would have been called aromatherapy. Today we acknowledge the cultural origins. Because this approach comes from Japanese medicine and is derived from Japanese forest bathing, the so-called Shinrin-yoku, people go into the forest and bathe in the atmosphere and scents in this form of therapy. Studies have found that terpenes, the vegetable fragrances exuded by trees and forest plants, positively affect people.
“The studies showed that people use these scents to produce more white blood cells, which among other things strengthen our immune system,”. The highest concentrations of terpenes were found in pine and lavender. This approach works quite quickly if you use a diffuser to distribute fragrances in the room at home. In this sense, treat yourself to a lot of fresh air, take a deep breath, work less overtime and chill out for a while. That is healthy!
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