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Exercise Plateau: Effective Techniques Supported by Science to Overcome It

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

What causes your muscles to desire capitulation when you’re making an effort to maintain a plank position, complete a long run, or engage in speed drills? Well, scientific investigation indicates that they may not actually be depleted — instead, they are receiving conflicting messages from your brain. In simpler terms, when you’re devoting time to exercising and training your muscles, it is actually your mental state that you may need to condition in order to surpass the moment when you feel like giving up. That’s correct: Mental exhaustion can significantly impact your workout.

Here’s precisely what occurs and how you can prevent your brain from hindering your progress.

What Occurs When Mental Fatigue Impedes Your Workout

When you engage in physical activity, there is direct communication between your muscles and your brain. With each step or repetition, your muscles send signals to the brain, informing it of their needs to sustain the effort — particularly, oxygen and other sources of energy — and reporting their level of exhaustion. The brain then responds by adjusting the demands for muscle contraction accordingly, as explained by Markus Amann, Ph.D., a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Utah. “If we can train our brain to respond to muscle signals in a certain way, we can actually exert more effort and endure for a longer duration,” he explains.

The initial step is to comprehend the factors that trigger your exhaustion. The impulse to quit during a workout can originate from either your central nervous system or your muscles. “Central fatigue,” as experts call it, arises from the former, while “peripheral fatigue” stems from the latter. You have likely experienced heavy legs during the final stages of a race or trembling arms as you complete a final set of push-ups during boot camp — that’s peripheral fatigue, which means a decline in your muscles’ ability to generate power.

Previously, it was assumed that peripheral fatigue establishes a predetermined threshold at which your muscles surrender. However, research published in the journal “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise” revealed that the brain can actually miscalculate how much energy you still have remaining and, as a result, instruct your muscles to exert less effort.

In the study, cyclists completed three rides at different intensities: a sprint for 4 kilometers, a race pace for 20 kilometers, and a challenging endurance pace for 40 kilometers. Utilizing a sophisticated electrical stimulation technique, the scientists were able to measure central and peripheral fatigue after each ride to determine which triggered the sensation of muscle fatigue. Peripheral fatigue reached its peak during the short bursts of activity, while central fatigue was at its lowest. However, central fatigue was most pronounced during the longer distance ride, indicating that the brain reduced the muscular effort even though the muscles were not actually at their maximum capacity.

Amann conducted another study that supports this theory: He administered a spinal nerve block to exercisers, inhibiting the transmission of signals from the legs to the brain, and had them cycle as quickly as possible on a stationary bike for 3.1 miles.

At the conclusion of the journey, each bike rider required assistance in dismounting due to the physical effort; a few were so incapacitated that they were unable to move. “Due to the obstruction of their central tiredness mechanism, the cyclists were capable of exceeding their usual boundaries,” declares Amann. “Their muscles experienced exhaustion to an extent almost 50 percent greater than if the signaling system had cautioned them about nearing this condition,” he persists.

How to Overcome Mental Exhaustion During Exercise

Naturally, if you ever experience dizziness, nausea, or feel like you might faint, slow down. However, frequently your muscles are not always in control of your workout, and they will exert more effort for a longer period if your brain instructs them to do so. Want to test it out? These three methods will assist you in outsmarting your mental fatigue and surpassing the invisible barriers to your next fitness level.

Outsmart the System

At the beginning of a lengthy run or race, you feel energized and enthusiastic. But once you reach mile seven, every subsequent mile feels like a burden and you start to decelerate. Certainly, physical setbacks such as a depletion of glycogen and the accumulation of metabolites that cause muscle fatigue exacerbate this struggle, but they do not fully explain the added difficulty, according to Samuele Marcora, Ph.D., a professor of sport science at the University of Bologna in Italy. “Performance is not directly limited by muscle fatigue but rather by the perception of exertion,” he says. “We mostly set our own limits based on what our brain perceives, rather than what might actually be happening deep within our muscles,” Marcora adds.

Marcora’s study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, demonstrates that the most crucial factor is the internal battle between your personal sense of exertion and the growing inclination to quit. In the study, 16 cyclists rode until exhaustion after 90 minutes of either a mentally demanding task or a mindless task. The participants who tired their brains before the workout had significantly shorter endurance times. The mentally fatigued group also rated their perception of exertion during the cycling test much higher, leading them to quit earlier than the others. The bottom line? Any strategy that diminishes the perception of exertion will enhance your endurance performance.

Firstly, maintain a positive mindset as you persevere. “Tell yourself empowering affirmations, such as ‘You will undoubtedly conquer this incline,'” suggests Marcora. Next, associate exercise with a pleasurable sensation in your brain. (The “fake it until you make it” approach definitely applies; positive thinking truly does work.) “The muscles responsible for frowning are an indication of how strenuously your body perceives that it is working. Try to smile during challenging segments of your workout to activate the muscles that counteract thoughts of exhaustion less,” he suggests.

Just like your muscles, when you reduce the burden on your mind, you can endure and perform better. (Music also aids in this! Here are a few of the finest running playlists to propel you to a new personal record.)

Conquer the Challenging Parts

During your everyday hustle — and even your average daily exercise — your muscles are receiving an ample amount of oxygen from your heart and lungs to assist in powering their movement. However, when you push yourself to the limit, this aerobic system becomes insufficient to meet the energy demands, causing your muscles to rely on their auxiliary power. Eventually, this depletes their fuel reserves and leads to a buildup of the mentioned metabolites.

Result: fatigue. Yet, it’s important to remember that trembling muscles are simply a warning sign that you’re nearing exhaustion — they don’t necessarily indicate your true limit. Your brain will always prevent your muscles from completely shutting down in order to preserve an emergency energy supply. However, you can train your brain to respond less aggressively to the accumulation of metabolites, as Amann suggests. For instance, repetition builds resilience: the more you engage in sprint cycling, the more resistant your muscles become to fatigue and the less likely they are to signal your brain to halt. Additionally, increasing the motivational stakes of your workout, such as participating in a bike race rather than a cycling class, can occupy your brain and prevent it from panicking at the first sign of stiffness.

Quench Your Mind

The right beverage can enhance your brain’s “go” power during exercise. To bring about a game-changing moment mid-workout, swish and spit out a carbohydrate drink like Gatorade. A study published in the Journal of Physiology found that cyclists who rinsed their mouths with a sports drink finished a time trial at least one minute ahead of those in the control group. Functional MRI scans revealed that reward centers in the brain were activated when the carbohydrate-rich drink was consumed, leading the body to believe it was receiving more fuel. As a result, participants pushed themselves harder.

For those who prefer to consume their beverages, caffeine can also have remarkable effects on reducing mental fatigue. “Research indicates that consuming two or three cups of coffee before a workout stimulates the brain, requiring less brain activity to produce muscle contractions,” explains Marcora. Movement becomes more automatic and seems less intimidating, making your workout feel limitless and enhancing your overall performance. (Learn more here: How Consuming Coffee Before a Workout Can Boost Your Performance)

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