Dr David de Klerk talks us through how to balance body vs mind and overcome fatigue.

Have you ever been at the end of a race, wondering how you are going to get to the finish line until you see the actual end and hear the cheering crowds and abruptly, something changes! Suddenly your legs are fresh and your pace increases. You speed across the finish line, sometimes logging your fastest kilometre of the race, in an inexplicable burst of energy. And it was all due to motivation. Just the jolt of seeing the finish line, right?

Well, sort of…

For years, our conventional understanding of fatigue has gone like this:
Muscles contract and relax during exercise and ultimately become fatigued. Fatigue results in the build up of ‘waste products’ within our muscles and this accumulation leads to communication with the brain that we are tired and over-exerted and that it is time to slow down or to stop.

But, over the last 20 or so years, the above idea has started to change. And what a change it has been!

Recent research has hypothesised the existence of a part of the brain known as the ‘central governor’. Related theories suggest that a structure or group of structures within the brain are responsible for the sensation of fatigue. This sounds fairly obvious and uninfluential until you start to think about what it all means: that fatigue is all in your head!

As a result of the above idea, our understanding of fatigue has changed completely!

It now runs as follows:

Muscles contract and relax during exercise. As a result, they accumulate mostly acidic waste products. These waste products can potentially disrupt the body’s pH balance (i.e. the balance between acid and alkaline) which could be detrimental to health if left unchecked. For this reason, the brain creates the sensation of fatigue in order to stop you from ever reaching true muscle exhaustion.

So why does this matter to us runners?

Because it changes everything you think you know about why you get tired. You aren’t actually anywhere near your breaking point, your mind is just trying to trick you into believing you are there to stop what you are doing early and play it safe!

Now, human beings are different from animals because we are not purely instinctual creatures. That is, we can assess a situation and choose how we respond to it. This involves what is termed ‘higher functioning’ whereby our basic instincts created by the most primitive structures in our brains can be overridden by our conscious decisions. And this is the same with the sensation of fatigue! It can be received as an emotion and you can decide how to react to it.


Practical Application
The next time you’re on a hard run and you feel yourself burning out, receive the pain and the message of exhaustion as just another sensory stimulus, the same as feeling that a blanket is soft or that a flower smells sweet and remember that you have the power to overcome the impulse to slow down or stop.

To motivate you, here are some uplifting examples of athletes with exceptional mental grit who have made use of this way of thinking:

Eliud Kipchoge, world marathon record holder, is known for his remarkable confidence and calm. An approach that has led him to be defined as possibly the world’s greatest ever marathon runner.

Tyler Hamilton, an ex-professional cyclist who placed second on the podium at the Tour de France and who is well known for enduring the 21 day long race with a broken collarbone. At the end of the famous cycling event, he required dental surgery to repair his teeth as he had ground them down to the nerve root while enduring through the pain.

So, on your next run, change your idea of pain and fatigue. Don’t be a slave to your emotions. You decide how your run goes, not your instincts!