A post-exercise mental workout could improve the overall performance of road cyclists, according to a new study.
Researchers at the universities of Birmingham (UK), Valencia (Spain), Odense (Denmark) and Bologna (Italy) show how adding cognitively demanding tasks after standard physical training has been completed (brain endurance training – BET) can benefit cycling performance. The results of their research are published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.
Mental fatigue can impair physical performance. While traditional training for endurance athletes has focused in improving physiological fitness, sports scientists are increasingly turning to mental-fatigue resilience training to make further improvements to overall performance.
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. Importantly, 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 could make a difference to overall performance. Our work also shows how BET can be customised to fit athletes’ training needs, so they are able to use these tools even within a busy and demanding schedule.”
Dr Walter Staiano, lead author on the study 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 effort was linked with an improvement in cyclists’ performance. Interestingly, no physiological changes were found when comparing the BET group with the control group. 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 a group of 28 male road cyclists aged between 24 and 34 who were accustomed to cycling around 250 kilometres per week. The participants were divided into two groups, each with the same training regime over a six-week period. The first group was given a demanding cognitive task to perform after each physical training session, 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 trial tests more than the standard physical training group.
In the second experiment, 24 male road cyclists aged between 21 and 29 took part. This group, classified as highly trained/elite, was accustomed to cycling around 400 kilometres per week. 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 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 is enough to improve the overall endurance performance of highly trained and elite road cyclists.
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