Fighting Through Fatigue
By Dr. Randy Borum
(Published in Black Belt Magazine, July, 2008)
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all” Vince Lombardi
What do you do when you are completely exhausted, spent, and “done”, but there is still time left on the clock? Fatigue can be a martial arts athlete’s toughest opponent, simultaneously attacking your thoughts, emotions and body – trying to get you to quit.
Fatigue is not “all in your head,” but how you react and respond to it can determine how it affects your performance. Sport psychologists investigating “motivational intensity theory” find– when the going gets tough - the degree of effort that people put out is determined by the justifiability (Is it worth it?) and attainability (Is it possible to do it?) of the goal. Interestingly, research shows those same motivational factors also determine whether your cardiovascular system will react and compensate to help you exert more effort when you need it most.
This means that motivational factors under your control can and will affect your performance when you are fatigued. Building on these scientific findings, there are two immediate implications for martial art and combat sport athletes: (1) it is essential that you set goals for yourself and use them constantly to drive your motivation; and (2) when the demands are high, feeling confident and keeping a positive attitude will really help you push through.
Fighting effectively through fatigue is really about preparation, not just about “digging deep” in the heat of competition. How do you prepare to sprint when you are already running on fumes? Here is a three-pronged approach to preparing for your fight against fatigue:
Train to the specific energy demands of your sport: The human body uses different systems of energy depending first on the intensity and second on the duration of the activity. For years, “road work” was considered the cornerstone of conditioning for boxers. While running may have its place in combat sport training, jogging for several miles at a time does not “mirror” the biological energy demands of the sport. Whether the athlete is in a boxing, MMA, wrestling, or point sparring match, he or she is typically not required to maintain an steady, constant, low level aerobic demand over a half-hour period with no rest.
Instead, the sport generally requires multiple, intermittent “bursts” of power at maximal or near-maximal levels, with several-second periods of “rest” in between. The oxygen and metabolic energy demands are quite different in these two activities. So sprints and interval-type training, for example, match the sport-specific energy demands better than a four-mile jog. You will fatigue much less quickly when you have trained your body to anticipate the sport-specific energy demands of competition. Think also about the mental demands of your competition environment - such as lights, crowds, and bad calls from the officials - and prepare for those in training as well.
Minimize Wasted Energy: Even if you are in good shape physically, you may still “gas” if you have not adequately trained your mental game. Tension, anxiety and worry also consume energy and personal resources. Negative thoughts compete with your preparation and competition focus. Constant tension in your muscles makes them tire much more quickly. Jittery feelings – if you perceive them negatively – activate your sympathetic nervous system and cause your body to prepare for a threat, potentially using lots of energy in a way that does not help your performance. By learning to control your level of physiological arousal and to manage your thoughts and self-talk you can help to minimize the amount of wasted energy that comes from an emotional drain.
Breathing is a very important part of managing your energy and fighting fatigue. If you are breathing irregularly or holding your breath while exerting yourself – which is not uncommon – you are limiting the supply of oxygen available to your muscles and your brain. Learning to breathe from the diaphragm and to breathe regularly even under demanding physical conditions should be a priority for your training and your competition plan.
Maximize Positive, Productive Energy: Remember, research shows when you are fatigued that goal attainability is one of the main drivers of your effort. Attainability does not just refer to the level of task difficulty, but also to your belief in your own ability. Psychologists call it self-efficacy, but most athletes just refer to it as confidence. It is very important for a combat sport athlete to enter a competition with a deeply rooted faith in his or her own ability to perform well and to succeed. This skill starts in training. Try not to give voice or credibility to self-limiting beliefs or unproductive thoughts that creep in. When you are training, practice keeping your focus on the present. Don’t allow yourself to say: “I don’t know if I can do it.” Don’t look at the clock or worry about how much time is left in a training interval. Just perform in the moment.
How does one further develop that confident energy? The best source of confidence is past experiences of success, whether in training or competition. Remember your past successes. Recall them often; remembering specifically how you felt and how it happened. Another source of confidence and positive emotion is self-talk. You should direct that voice in your head. Don’t just wait for it to react. Rehearse and repeat positive messages to yourself about your skill and ability. Connecting with your personal “feelings” of success and competence, settling your body into your optimal “zone” of intensity, and creating a positive thought environment should be highlights of your pre-competition routine.
You will also benefit from having a plan to refocus and restore your positive mindset if you happen to encounter a setback in your competition. Many fighters and athletes have had success using “cue words” to help them re-focus. Choose one or two words that have personal significance for you to help bring you back positively and fully into the present. Energy-draining distractions usually when happen because we are thinking either about something that has already happened or something that might happen. Your cue words can prompt you to re-focus on the present.
Fatigue can be a formidable opponent, but with a smart conditioning plan, confidence, and pre-competition preparation, you can keep your mind and body infused with positive energy to prevail in the battle.