The Battle Of Fatigue
When it comes to achieving your goals; whether they are your daily goals like cleaning up the house, karate goals like training hard or passing a Grading. Or scholastic goals like studying for a test, work goals like getting through a mountain of paperwork, even romance goals like taking your partner out for a romantic evening after a hard day at work, fatigue is going to be one of your biggest obstacles.
Fatigue drains our enthusiasm to start, or continue, doing something we normally find enjoyable. It kills our concentration when we need it most, it makes us irritable around the people we love the most, and it holds us back in our karate progress.
We’ve all trained in the dojo with that person who seemingly powers through every second of class. It’s always fullsteam ahead for them while we start to secretly pace ourselves. They hold their stance while we stand up, they smash through every move in kata when we start to secretly pace ourselves midway through Bassai-dai, and they dance around like a jack-rabbit in kumite while we start breathing heavily and have to concentrate just on keeping our guard up. We know that pacing our physical output is also pacing our progress, but what are we supposed to do, keep pushing ourselves and then fall in a heap on the floor?
Yes and no. One of the problems with fatigue is that it convinces us that we should collapse, but more often than not fatigue simply disappears. You know the feeling: You’re dead tired towards the end of a hard class, your legs turn to lead, you consider the unthinkable – asking Sensei if you can bow out. But then something happens. Despite the crisis in your muscles and your continued effort, you start to feel the energy coming back and surge through the rest of the class with ease. What happened?
How Real Is Fatigue?
Recent research suggests that feeling fatigued is not a true indication of muscle failure but a sensation created by your nervous system to keep you from overexercising. But that’s a good thing right? The problem is our brains often underestimate what our body is capable of and will even shut you down pre-emptively, if you let it. For example, when going through all of the katas, midway through Bassai-dai you start to pace yourself because you feel fatigued. A year later and this is still where you start to pace yourself. You justify it by saying that it’s because you now push yourself harder, or move with more explosiveness during the earlier kata. But it’s more likely your nervous system has a habit of sending fatigue signals out at the same time each class, despite your much-improved fitness.
Exercise scientists in Cape Town first detected the brain’s tight control over performance in 2004 through an ingenious experiment in which experienced endurance athletes were asked to exercise as intensely as possible for two short bursts. In this “deception trial” they were told one burst would be for 40 seconds and the other for just 30 seconds. Obviously to the mind, 40 seconds at 100% intensity is much harder than at 30 seconds. The scientists however rigged the clock during the second test so that it moved slower. The athlete would watch it and think 30 seconds had passed, but in actuality, it would still be 40 seconds. During the first test, the true 40 seconds, the athletes would last about 35 seconds before slowing down in exhaustion. To their minds, 35 seconds at 100% was all they had. In the second test, the athletes continued at 100% right through, showing no signs of burnout, because their minds said, “I can do 30 seconds.”
“The study showed that fatigue is often a psychological construct rather than an absolute physical condition – something that your brain creates when you start exercising, and then adjusts according to how long you train or compete,” says Alan St. Clair Gibson, associate professor at the University of Cape Town. To get the most out of your body, you must reset how your nervous system perceives fatigue. Here’s how to do this.
The fact that fatigue is often only in your mind, means that you can choose to ignore it. For example, when you experience a significant bout of fatigue during a class, try to put aside the typical defeatist reaction, such as: “My muscles are failing; there’s no way I can continue at this pace.” Instead, say to yourself in a crisp, clear voice, “Thanks for the warning, but I’m going to relax and keep on going.” When fatigue is treated as a normal sensation associated with exercise (rather than as a performance blockade) the person is liberated to push onward. Somewhat paradoxically, research also shows that it may be beneficial to speed up slightly when fatigue strikes. This increased neural input to your muscles gives your conservative neural governor a sharp slap in the face, and can quickly alleviate the fatigue.