How does the human body keep going? After all, even when your legs are telling you that you can’t run another step, by the time you’ve processed that information, you’ve run five. So what can you do to manage fatigue when it really kicks in? Ironman Champion Samantha McGlone looks at psychological ways of overcoming fatigue.By Samantha McGlone
Motivation is a constant struggle for triathletes, especially as the distances increase and the races, such as Ironman, last all day. I am not referring to the daily battle with the snooze button or the inner debate between squeezing in a midday run and sitting down to eat lunch. I am considering the question of what keeps someone going in a race, after the energy wanes and the novelty wears off and that finish line is still too darn far away to be a draw. What drives an athlete to continue to push after the body wants to call it a day? This is a question that every triathlete struggles with at some point, novices and pros alike. Is there a secret to keeping enthusiasm high when the body is rebelling and the legs are begging to stop and rest in the shade?
There is a secret (there are probably lots of secrets, but only the pro Tour cyclists know about those ones), and it’s pretty simple: Fatigue is all in your head. That is easy to say, but harder to convince yourself of when your legs are cramping and the pace has slowed to the trademark Ironman shuffle. But really, there is a theory in endurance sports that suggests that fatigue is not a product of bodily shutdown, but of the brain.
The traditional model of fatigue focused on peripheral factors. The idea was that the muscles in the legs and arms begin to fail due to lack of oxygen, glycogen or electrolytes and so we slow down accordingly. Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, was credited with pioneering a new model of fatigue, referred to as the Central Governor Model (CGM). This model asserts that physical exertion is controlled by the brain and not by the peripheral muscles. When the brain senses that reserves are getting low, it begins to shut down muscle fibre recruitment in order to protect the heart from damage done by lack of oxygen. So it is not your quads giving out underneath you, but it is actually your brain telling your muscles to take it easy to avoid a physical catastrophe. You’ll experience this reduction in neural recruitment as fatigue, but there is actually always an “emergency reserve” maintained in the muscles. It is similar to the fuel light coming on in a car: It motivates you to take precautions against running out of fuel, but realistically you can still drive a fair way on “empty” due to the buffer built by manufacturers, who know that a certain gender is hardwired to ignore the first few warnings and drive around on “E” until the situation gets really desperate. There are always a few athletes who can override this internal regulator—we have all seen images of athletes crawling to the finish, having ignored their bodily signals for so long that a peripheral breakdown really does occur.
When you see athletes collapse within sight of the finish line, it seems counterintuitive. How can they get all that way and then not be able to travel the last 400 metres? These athletes are demonstrating the incredible power of the brain overriding the bodily signals; they have been overriding peripheral signals by sheer force of will for so long that they are literally running on empty. As soon as the brain sees the finish line it registers that it can finally stop pushing past the limits and it shuts down. Without the brain powering the peripheral systems to keep going, complete meltdown occurs. Those athletes were already at the point of catastrophe long before they turned onto the finish stretch, but when their brains registered that the end was in sight, that’s when the wheels came off.
I find the Central Governor Model comforting. It’s good to know that all that pain I am experiencing in a race isn’t actually doing irreversible damage to my muscles and systems. The pain is merely a strong suggestion that I might want to slow down and get some fuel and fluids in ASAP. With that knowledge, it’s easier to push past the comfort zone and well into the hurt locker. If you stop considering that pain is a bad thing, if you can remove yourself from the immediacy of the sensations and look at pain as an objective signal, like that gas indicator light, it becomes much easier to just grit your teeth and get to the finish line as fast as possible, which is really the best motivation of all.
Instead of the pain, focus on these five things:
1. Form: It’s hard to run properly when your legs feel like lead, but thinking about form cues will increase efficiency and help recruit the strongest muscles for the job.
2.Fuel and fluid: It seems obvious, but slowing the pace a little and fuelling at each aid station can bring a racer back from the brink. The brain runs on glycogen, so motivation requires a steady stream of quick sugar.
3. Count steps: Sometimes it’s all you can do just to put one foot in front of the other. Try just counting strides to 100 a few times and voilà—there goes another mile. Up for a challenge? Count backwards.
4.Think about why you are racing: Personal achievement, charity, family, friends, a bet, etc. Knowing that someone else is counting on you makes getting to the finish line all the more pressing.
5.“Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” Kind of corny but oh-so-true.
Samantha McGlone is an Olympian and Ironman 70.3 world champion. She finished second at the Ironman World Championship in 2007 and is the current Ironman Arizona course record holder.