Following Chris Froome’s remarkable fourth consecutive Tour de France victory, research from the University of Kent and Australian collaborators shows for the first time that elite endurance athletes have superior ability to resist mental fatigue.
Professor Samuele Marcora, Director of Research in Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, co-authored a report in the journal PLOS ONE entitled Superior Inhibitory Control and Resistance to Mental Fatigue in Professional Road Cyclists.
For the study, Professor Marcora and his colleagues compared the performance of 11 professional cyclists and nine recreational cyclists in various tests. As expected, the professional cyclists outperformed the recreational cyclists in a simulated time trial in the laboratory. The new finding was that while the recreational cyclists slowed down after performing a computerised cognitive task to induce mental fatigue, the professional cyclists’ time trial performance was not affected.
In addition, the professional cyclists performed better than the recreational cyclists in the computerised cognitive task which measure ‘inhibitory control’ or willpower. This is not surprising as the ability to suffer is a major factor in the sport of cycling.
Professor Marcora, says that the two effects go hand in hand, because becoming resistant to mental fatigue should bolster willpower during the latter stages of a competition such as the Tour de France.
Although largely hereditary, he speculates that superior willpower and resistance to mental fatigue may be trained through hard physical training and the demanding lifestyle of elite endurance athletes. Professor Marcora is also developing, in collaboration with the Ministry of Defense, a new training method (Brain Endurance Training) to boost resistance to mental fatigue and endurance performance even further.
Here’s a portion of the abstract:
Given the important role of the brain in regulating endurance performance, this comparative study sought to determine whether professional road cyclists have superior inhibitory control and resistance to mental fatigue compared to recreational road cyclists.
After preliminary testing and familiarization, eleven professional and nine recreational road cyclists visited the lab on two occasions to complete a modified incongruent colour-word Stroop task (a cognitive task requiring inhibitory control) for 30 min (mental exertion condition), or an easy cognitive task for 10 min (control condition) in a randomized, counterbalanced cross-over order. After each cognitive task, participants completed a 20-min time trial on a cycle ergometer. During the time trial, heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and rating of perceived exertion (RPE) were recorded.
The professional cyclists completed more correct responses during the Stroop task than the recreational cyclists (705±68 vs 576±74, p = 0.001). During the time trial, the recreational cyclists produced a lower mean power output in the mental exertion condition compared to the control condition (216±33 vs 226±25 W, p = 0.014). There was no difference between conditions for the professional cyclists (323±42 vs 326±35 W, p = 0.502). Heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and RPE were not significantly different between the mental exertion and control conditions in both groups.
The professional cyclists exhibited superior performance during the Stroop task which is indicative of stronger inhibitory control than the recreational cyclists. The professional cyclists also displayed a greater resistance to the negative effects of mental fatigue as demonstrated by no significant differences in perception of effort and time trial performance between the mental exertion and control conditions. These findings suggest that inhibitory control and resistance to mental fatigue may contribute to successful road cycling performance. These psychobiological characteristics may be either genetic and/or developed through the training and lifestyle of professional road cyclists.
You can read the full study here.
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