According to a new study, a post-exercise mental workout could improve overall performance for road cyclists.
Researchers at the Universities of Birmingham, UK, Valencia, Spain, Odense, Denmark, and Bologna, Italy, show how adding cognitively demanding tasks after completing standard physical training ( Brain Endurance Training – BET) can benefit cycling performance. Mental fatigue can impair physical performance. While traditional training for endurance athletes has focused on improving physiological fitness, sports scientists are increasingly turning to mental fatigue resilience training to improve overall performance further.
Professor Christopher Ring, co-author of the study at the University of Birmingham’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, said: “When athletes carry out brain endurance training (BET) after a physical training session, this increases the overall cognitive load of the training session. Over time this can increase mental stamina, leading to physical improvements. However, it doesn’t add extra physical load on the athlete’s cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.
“At the level of elite sport, this increased mental resilience could reduce the risk of injury and make a difference to overall performance. Our work also shows how BET can be customised to fit athletes’ training needs so that they can use these tools even within a busy and demanding schedule.”
Dr Walter Staiano, the study’s lead author at the University of Valencia, said: “BET alters the ability of athletes to sustain mental fatigue by changing the way they perceive effort (the difficulty of the physical task they are performing). The decrease in the effort was linked with improved cyclists performance.
“Interestingly, no physiological changes were found when comparing the BET and control groups. This leads us to believe that BET acts more centrally (i.e., brain activity) than peripherally (i.e., cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal activity).”
In the project, the researchers carried out two separate experiments. In the first, they worked with 28 male road cyclists aged between 24 and 34 and accustomed to cycling around 250 km weekly. The participants were divided into two groups, each with the same training regime over a six-week period.
After each physical training session, the first group was given a demanding cognitive task designed to cause mental fatigue and cognitive overload. The second group, a control group, listened to neutral sounds following their physical workout.
Importantly, the BET group improved performance on time-to-exhaustion tests more than the standard physical training group.
In the second experiment, 24 male road cyclists aged between 21 and 29 participated. This group was accustomed to cycling around 400 km weekly and classified as highly trained/elite. Again, the cyclists were split into two groups, with one half given cognitive tasks and the other half listening to neutral sounds.
Here, the BET group improved performance on time trial tests more than the standard physical training group.
The researchers found that the post-exercise brain endurance training (BET) increased the perceived mental demand of participants in both experiments by nearly 50%, compared to the control groups, showing that it is effective in increasing the overall training load while maintaining the same physical load.
Their results also showed that half an hour of post-training BET five times per week over a six-week period improves the overall endurance performance of highly trained and elite road cyclists.