Fighting fatigue: why cycling fatigue is in the brain, not in a head unit

Data can assist progress in cycling. But the key driver is your brain and how you feel. That’s why it’s time to learn from Rolf Aldag and tap into your emotions…

Those of you with a bike computer, nip out to the garage, click it off your bars and look. Just look at the training metrics at your fingertips. You can ride to your heart rate, wattage, heart rate variability and even by your menstrual cycle. If your nervous system’s not working, you can take comfort that there are nutritional reminders to drink and eat. You are your head unit and your head unit is you. But is that what you took up road cycling for? Are you a proponent of the business guru Peter Drucker’s train of thought that “you can’t improve what you don’t measure”?

Yes, data, analysis and reflection have their place, but that’s to neglect what’s often the temple of intangibles, namely your brain. Here, we discover how enjoyment, motivation and what goes on up top will decide whether you’ll reach your goals in 2024. 

’Emotion brought us Giro victory’

Just before Christmas, The Cycling Podcast interviewed Bora-Hansgrohe’s experienced DS Rolf Aldag. The 55-year-old’s good value and, in a thoroughly absorbing interview, talked about Cian Uijtdebroeks’ messy transfer to Visma-Lease a Bike, Jan Ullrich’s belated doping confession and Cav’s chances of a Merckx-beating 35th Tour de France stage win. But arguably (for this writer anyway) the most fascinating vignette revolved around how Bora will try and do things a little bit differently to maximise Primož Roglič’s chances of winning the Tour.

“We are less purely number driven [than other teams],” Aldig told Daniel Friebe. “Within the team we are more emotional. We get a lot of motivation about our purpose, our goal, of winning the Tour de France. Living by emotions we might do an extra loop here or there rather than say we have to do this [distance] and this number on these days. I think that emotion brought us victory at the Giro [2022 with Jai Hindley]. Yes, we can spend 5,000 kilojoules till a climb and cycle up it at 6.3 watts per kilogramme. We have a scientific team, a performance team, who are on top of that. But I think it’s important that the riders enjoy what they do and it’s not just a daily business. Once it becomes a daily business, then we are not outstanding anymore. We must ride with passion.”

It conjured memories of a Lidl-Trek training camp at Denia where one of the riders told us how Mads Pedersen would go stamina-boosting rogue, often riding an extra hour, even 90 minutes, just because he felt good and wanted to maximise that feeling. And it’s those feelings that can too often be muted by data. 

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But let those feelings sing loud as research from Cape Town University revealed that perception of effort (how hard exercise feels) predicts fatigue during exercise better than heart rate, blood lactate levels, oxygen consumption, muscle fuel depletion or any other physiological factor. As acclaimed professor Tim Noakes said about his central governor model of fatigue model: “The feeling of fatigue is fatigue.”

Profound. But how do you suppress those feelings of fatigue? Well, arguably the greatest fatigue dampener is enjoyment with further research demonstrating a strong correlation between exercise enjoyment, adherence and fitness. Specifically, the fitter people are, the more competent they feel in exercise, and the more they enjoy exercise, the more likely they are to stick with it. It might explain why the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig always look so damn happy. Fitness equals competence and, as triathlon coach Darren Smith once told me, competence equals confidence. And that confidence and competence can impact a rider’s perception of effort that, according to Samuele Marcora, is integral to riding longer and stronger. 

Perception is everything

Marcora, professor at Bologna University, is convinced that fatigue can’t be measured on a Garmin. Instead, Marcora says a cyclist’s decision to slow or quit stems from two key areas – motivation and perception. In 2008, Marcora conducted an experiment involving 10 rugby players cycling at a fixed power output based on 90% of their VO2max. When they could no longer maintain that wattage, he had them ride as hard as they could for five extra seconds. From an average power output of 242 watts in the test, despite apparent exercising-ending fatigue, they generated 731 watts. So, if fatigue was a physical construct, how could the cyclists generate such power when they’d slowed down? 

According to Marcora, when effort is perceived as maximal or when effort required eclipses the amount of effort you’re willing to exert, then you stop. For Marcora, the decision to stop is a conscious decision rather than a subconscious one.

Why? The key here is perception. Take how hard you perceive riding up a hill or chasing a breakaway. Just reflect on your own performance. One Sunday morning ride, you might feel on top of the world and sail up Alpe d’Huez with the lightness of a feather. The next, despite physically weighing the same and devoid of injury or illness, you’re just not feeling it and ascend like a sprinter. Nothing has physically changed except how you perceive that session. 

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And that, Marcora argues, is down to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain associated with effort perception. Studies into rats showed that those with a damaged ACC became lazy when seeking food. Those with a bolstered ACC satiated their hunger. 

This led Marcora to hypothesise that strengthening your ACC will raise your limits. To that end, a further Marcora study had 35 soldiers undertake a 60-minute cycle ergometer test that measured cycling physiological variables like VO2max and time to exhaustion. Marcora then split the soldiers into two groups. Both would train on an indoor cycle three times a week for 12 weeks, but one group would physically do so while performing a mentally fatiguing task on a computer.

After 12 weeks, the results were staggering. While the control group improved their time to exhaustion by 42%, the brain-training group improved by 126%. They also found the test less painful. The results showed that the subjects could tolerate a harder perceived effort, so when the cognitive task was removed, the effort felt easier.

Key to the mentally fatiguing games was that they were dull. This would induce the required level of mental fatigue. Too engaging and motivated wouldn’t be an issue and they wouldn’t activate the ACC enough. Likewise, too hard and the athlete would disengage. Strike the right level of complexity and it’s like weight training for your mind.

All of this, according to Marcora, highlights the role your brain plays on cycling performance, in particular perception. Which is why when it comes to altering your perception of fatigue, Marcora suggests we use the proven performance-enhancer caffeine. He also recommends training against the backdrop of subliminal messages. In one study, Marcora showed that positive words like ‘go, ‘energy’ and ‘lively’ motivated the group more than negative words like ‘stop’, ‘toil’ or ‘sleep’, extending their workout time by 17%. Okay, that one might be a little weird. But as Marcora showed, there’s certainly an argument that your brain and how you feel does heavily influence your pedalling. Which is made even more persuasive by the work of Martin Paulus. 

Elite mind

Studies by Professor Paulus and his team at the OptiBrain Centre, University of California, suggest a small structure deep within the brain gives cyclists a competitive advantage over others. Paulus, a psychiatrist, argues that the brain’s insular cortex will help you complete the Fred Whitton Challenge that bit quicker than your rival because it’s making you more attuned to the signals from your body and the upcoming challenge.

To that end, Paulus took elite adventure racers and recreational racers and had them breathe through an inspiratory tool where he could alter the difficulty of breathing. Prior to changing the load, he gave them a visual cue to see how the brain responded to the signal. He found that the adventure racers’ insular cortex was more active. Essentially, they were preparing their brain before the challenge occurred so that they physically responded more appropriately. In cognitive terms this is often referred to as ‘proactive control’.

Paulus suggests that this elite functioning derives from the insular cortex sending signals to the anterior cingulate cortex, the area noted by Marcora and the area crucial for decision making, which fires up motor neurons that will rapidly execute the correct movement. In cycling terms, this result in optimum pacing, for example. 

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This sixth-sense is acute in 25-hour-per-week training elites but recreational riders can elevate this part of the brain, too. According to Paulus, there are interventions that can transform your insular cortex and concurrent neural network into that of an elite and positively impact your riding, like mindfulness training, which nurtures the same area of the brain. The OptiBrain researchers discovered that this Buddhist teaching improves cognitive performance during stressful situations, leading you to make better decisions like braking at the correct time.

Talk yourself up

Self-talk is another attentional strategy that riders employ to push their limits. All of us do this to some extent, whether it’s via a mental tannoy or a whisper. It’s been suggested that inner dialogue or self-talk that occurs during exercise is the competition between psychological drives and physiological mechanisms. You have one inner voice encouraging you to continue pedalling, despite the unsightly mess you’ve become, and another urging you to slow down or terminate the session. It’s cycling’s Jekyll and Hyde.

The idea is that controlling your self-talk manages this dialogue and, ultimately, delays fatigue. From a psychological perspective, there are triggers, key words, pictorial metaphors, that help you stay in the moment and remain positive. Ultimately, when it comes to self-talk, it must energise. Self-talk can revolve around responsibilities of the role, like come on, tuck back into your position. Or revolve around keeping focus, like what’s the next move? Or revolve around saving energy – stick in the pack, save for a climb. It’s about managing yourself by taking control of what you can take control of through what is a mentally tough environment.

When it comes to self-talk, saying is believing. It’s been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which sidesteps a drop in power output. It also shows how your brain can transform your cycling performance, how tuning in more to how you feel and your bodily signals, is arguably a more powerful tool than any power meter or heart rate monitor. Monitoring your riding’s great and, for many needed, but there’s also a case for a weekly muffling of the data and simply feeling the flow. Rest assured, your inner feelings won’t let you down.

Cover photo by Alessandra Bucci/Rouleur

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