6 Best Ways to Overcome Brain Drain

Decisions and distractions can zap your resolve to run. Here’s how to preserve mental energy.

Between your demanding boss, a balky computer, and text messages from your child or partner (or both!), by the time 5:30 rolls around you think, Ugh, I am way too tired to run.

Fatigue may seem odd, considering you’ve mostly been parked in a chair for eight hours. But while you may not have physically exerted yourself, you are low on mental energy, and that can make you feel tired, says Daniel Evans, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Brown Clinical Psychology Training Program and employed by Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, US. When your brain is engaged in making microdecisions all day, it can experience what’s called decision fatigue. The more choices you make, the more drained your brain becomes, which can cause you to abandon good judgment as the hours click by.

For almost three decades, psychologists have been researching decision fatigue. The theory is that people’s willpower becomes increasingly depleted. It’s why you’ll find yourself surfing Facebook after a run instead of foam rolling. Or why you’re fully committed to your race plan at the first kilometre, but ready to ditch it at 35 kilometres. These strategies may be enough to keep good training habits on track – even on mentally exhausting days.

1. Start your day right. It’s true that one good decision can lead to another. Healthy habits like exercising in the morning and eating a balanced breakfast can have a domino effect, causing you to make better choices throughout the day. Evans says willpower is similar to a muscle – the more it’s worked, the stronger it becomes. Even if you can’t run in the morning, start your day with a positive behaviour, like doing yoga or eating a healthy breakfast. Front-loading your day with actions that support your training will make it less likely you’ll bail on a run later.

2. Streamline decisions. You can’t control what you’ll face at work, and life emergencies can always pop up. But you can remove some decisions by planning your workouts and prepping meals in advance. “When I was training for a half Ironman, I sat down and planned out all my workouts so I never had to think about them when I was tired,” says Stephen Graef, Ph.D., a sports psychologist. “Try to eliminate figuring out which workout, which time, which route. Every single one of those decisions burns brain fuel.” Be aware that hard workouts take mental fortitude. When you come back from a long run, your resolve may not be at its highest. Have a healthy post-run snack prepped and ready to go.

3. Race in a group. It takes mental energy to properly pace yourself in a race. Letting someone else set the pace for you – be it a pace group or a friend you regularly run with – could help you conserve mental energy so you’ll feel less physically drained as the race progresses. “In principle, running with a group is beneficial because the decision-making process becomes much simpler: Follow the runner ahead of me,” says Andrew Renfree, a doctoral candidate and researcher at the Institute of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Worcester. Just be sure that your pacer is a good match for your speed and race goals.

4. Have sugar on standby. When your body begs for a break, recognise that it’s your brain trying to slow you down. Research shows that ‘hitting the wall’ is a psychological phenomenon. The mental fatigue of running hard can make you feel like you can’t go on, even though you still have physical energy (glycogen in your muscles). However, a hit of sugar can fool your brain. Evans says that just tasting something sweet can reset the brain’s ability to make good decisions. One study found that simply swishing a glucose solution, like Gatorade, around your mouth can help you feel more energised. “There are sensors in our mouths that sense glucose, which is tricking the brain into thinking it’s getting more fuel,” Evans says. Of course, if you’re racing a long distance, you’ll need to replenish your glycogen sources anyway, so feel free to sip, not just swish. (And you still have to train.)

5. Make a power playlist. Good decision making declines as you lose mental energy, which is why grabbing a beer from a spectator at 5km doesn’t present the same temptation that it does at 35km. Graef says that one great way to stave off a late-game mistake is to use music. Even if you don’t want to run with it for your entire race, having music available for the last few kilometres when your willpower is likely to dip can boost your mood, help you tune out sideline distractions, and help you refocus on your performance.

6. Take five. Evans says taking time to mentally reboot can help you find motivation to run after a draining day. Research supports the benefits of a quick meditation session or power nap. Just as effective is spending a few minutes doing something that elicits a positive emotion. Cat videos, anyone?


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