One of the first things we learn when studying the human body is that the brain controls virtually everything. In addition to managing the physical, chemical and mental state, the brain has a mind of its own making each of us unique individuals. By taking care of the brain we can better manage muscle fatigue, and train and race up to our potential. Below are three key factors that can dramatically help the brain accomplish this task.
Overall, being a healthy athlete may be the most important of all. When the body is functioning optimally, we reach our athletic potential more easily. All areas of health impact our fitness.
It’s simple. Healthier athletes are generally less injured, perform better, and don’t have excess muscle fatigue. This is something we control to a great extent through better diet, reduced stress, and balanced training.
A variety of brain-related features—mental, emotion and psychological—can also influence muscle fatigue through the effects on perception, and on physiological variables such as heart rate, oxygen and circulation. Those who are depressed, anxious, moody or mentally stressed will not fare as well with fatigue compared to others.
The sun has untold health benefits too. Sunlight stimulates the brain when the eyes are not covered by lenses or light blocked by windows. On the skin, sunlight can promote the production of vitamin D, which can directly reduce muscle dysfunction and fatigue.
2. Neuromuscular Factors
The health of our muscles and the nerves controlling them are obviously important in preventing fatigue. This involves stimulating the neuromuscular system during workouts. Essentially, we “train” all the nerves and muscles in preparation for racing. This may seem obvious, but too many training routines don’t adequately accomplish this.
Stimulating the full spectrum of the aerobic muscle fibers is most important, and best accomplished by starting a workout slowly. This enlists those important fibers that move the body at a very low level of intensity, and perform important metabolic activities such as burning fat. A gradual increase in speed ultimately incorporates the full spectrum of movement from slow to moderately fast while maintaining sub-max training levels.
Anaerobic fibers require training too, although much less as they are our “fight-flight” responders. Even the most untrained person can dash out of a sudden rainstorm or whisk across a busy city street. Most athletes also have at least one race in brain-muscle memory, and can easily turn this on while racing. In addition, endurance events rely almost exclusively on the aerobic system for energy needs, with a de-emphasis on the anaerobic system. These are some reasons why six months of aerobic-only training, for example, can result in a faster, personal-best race.
By regulating the balance of muscle contraction and relaxation, the neuromuscular system plays a key role in creating a great gait. When this does not happen, the increase in muscle fatigue causes a poor gait. Generally, looking at the middle and back of the pack finishers of an endurance race shows more irregularity in movement than those finishing up front. When an athlete’s gait is impaired, it costs more energy to cover each mile, impairing performance.
Muscle fatigue itself will cause gait irregularity, so the problems of fatigue and poor gait perpetuates itself (and usually includes muscle imbalance). The cycle can often be broken by improved health and aerobic fitness. In stubborn cases, help from a healthcare professional may be necessary.
The above three factors are particularly important during a race. The brain works with the body we develop in training, and relies on the sum of all our nutrition, emotions, experiences and every other aspect of health. If one part of the body functions less than optimal, the brain will be limited in how much it will ask of the body. For example, if our nutritional state is poor, muscle energy may be limited during a race. The brain will not allow an athlete to run faster than its ability and will slow the pace to protect the body. Likewise for muscle imbalance—rather than risk more serious injury, the brain will reduce performance to a level that is less harmful.
The brain subconsciously monitors and manages all the factors important for optimal muscle function, from oxygen and lactate to nutrient levels and ATP, and more. We can participate in this process by training with a heart monitor. This is a conscious form of biofeedback that can assist in building aerobic function and overall health, and help better understand the brain.
Muscle Fatigue Checklist
Below is a checklist containing important items necessary for avoiding excess muscle fatigue:
- Proper warm up—15 minutes for shorter training, 20 to 30 minutes for workouts lasting more than 90-minutes total.
- Proper cool down—just the opposite of warming up.
- Monitor the heart rate to help assure the full spectrum of muscle fibers are trained.
- Each workout is without excess muscle fatigue or pain.
- Frequent rest (no training) or regular easy/short training days should be part of ones schedule.
- Adequate sleep: 7 to 9 hours uninterrupted each night.
- Wake up feeling rested and without physical discomfort.
- No depression, anxiety, moodiness or other excess mental-emotional stress.
- Motivation for training and racing is high.
- Regular sun exposure on unprotected skin (without burning) and eyes (without glare).
- Feel good or great after training.
- Training, racing and all other footwear is relatively flat and completely comfortable.
- Spend some time each day being barefoot.
- Increasing power or pace at same heart rate over time.
- Races end with energy for a finishing “kick.”
These items are also factors that can help athletes improve health and significantly perform better.
Like the conductor of a large symphony, the brain continuously oversees all the body’s physiology. The better the conductor the greater the performance. It monitors heart rate, oxygen, carbon dioxide, lactate, each muscle fiber, every joint, and all else. As the brain receives information about the body, it can then make adequate adjustments—slow us down in a race if things are not working well, or allow us to maintain the faster pace when we’re healthy and fit. While much of this takes place subconsciously, we can consciously control the process too—by being healthy, properly trained, eating well, wearing proper footwear, being barefoot, and other factors discussed in part 1 and part 2 of this article.