Cycling training doesn’t just fatigue your legs — it can also tire out your brain. Knowing the impact that training has on subsequent mental awareness can help you anticipate the cognitive demands of training and racing. 

Mental Energy and Training

It might not always be apparent, but training actually demands a lot from your brain. Any time you’re pushing the pedals, you’re also managing the internal and external workloads that come with it. This management takes a toll on your mind and can ultimately affect how sharp you feel before and after exercise. 

In part, this happens because your brain uses fuel for energy, just like the rest of your system. During a race or a training ride, your brain will use its resources and can grow fatigued. When mental fatigue increases, you may experience an increase in the rate of perceived exertion or that your internal management system isn’t as sharp.  

Not all rides are equally taxing, and some workouts will be tougher on your mind than others. In general, though, the higher the intensity and the more challenging the internal and external variables, the more tired you’ll probably feel. Uncomfortable and stressful aspects of training are obvious examples of things that demand cognitive resources. Simply put, internal feelings (muscle pain, physical discomfort, self-doubt) and external variables (hot riding conditions, avoiding obstacles, and riding in a group) take up processing power on the road. 

Training Takes a Toll on the Mind

The relationship between cognition and exercise performance is demonstrated in a number of studies. One study, in particular, shows that your cognitive load during a workout does have an effect on physical performance. To conduct this study, this research group used a group of athletes pedaling at 60% of their threshold while completing cognitive tasks, a group pedaling at the same rate while watching a movie, and a group doing the same without any stimulus. The results showed that the group completing cognitive tasks while training experienced a higher heart rate, perceived rate of exertion, and markers of stress as the workout progressed.

Because your cognitive load going into a workout can influence how you feel during your workout, this effect is relevant for all athletes. For example, if you do a threshold workout immediately after a demanding day at work, you may notice that the rate of perceived exertion is higher than it normally is. The same can happen when the order is reversed. If you did a tough workout in the morning before work, you might find that your focus is less sharp during the day. 

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Mental energy is key to staying motivated and feeling good during your challenging workouts. Similarly, life’s commitments may not always afford you the leeway to be mentally drained during the day. Luckily, you have more control over your brain’s performance than it may seem. You can assist your cognitive functions with proper nutrition and hydration. Additionally, because not all workouts are draining, you can use timing to mitigate training’s impact on your day-to-day life.

Hydration and Fueling 

Like your muscles, your brain needs plenty of fuel. Ensuring that you’re well-hydrated and getting plenty of fuel throughout the day (this includes before, during, and after your training sessions) is a proactive way to help your brain during training. 

Dehydration degrades cognitive performance. This can be especially apparent indoors where you have insufficient cooling and lack of airflow. The best prevention is to stay on top of your hydration before, during, and after training. 

The same goes for fuel. Your brain uses glucose, depleting liver glycogen and blood glucose to fuel cognitive tasks. This is why one symptom of the dreaded bonk is confusion. You can help stay on top of your brain’s demand for fuel by giving your nutrition and fueling the extra attention it needs.

Timing Your Workouts

While hydrating and fueling mitigate training’s effect on cognitive function, it doesn’t eliminate mental fatigue entirely. In fact, when you know that you have a mentally taxing event or a day on the calendar, you might want to adjust your training schedule proactively.

For example, if Wednesdays are stressful personal days, put your recovery ride on Wednesday and your interval workout on Thursday or Friday instead. Moving the challenging workouts onto low-stress days can be enough to preserve the important tasks in your day without missing any of the workouts in your training plan. 

Improvements and Positive Effects

With time your ability to manage cognitive load during training may improve. In a study conducted with elite-level athletes, the subjects demonstrated that they were better at resisting mental fatigue through narrow focus. Essentially, the professional cyclists were better at filtering out noise and irrelevant external and internal information to save mental energy. As was noted earlier, endurance competitions and workouts require inhibition of some feelings (muscle pain, heat, stress, and the urge to quit.) As you get better at filtering out these adverse feelings, it will help your brain.

In other good news, training’s tax on your brain comes with its own set of benefits. Research suggests that exercise modulates genes that can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain. These structural improvements are shown to lead to improvements in both cognitive and emotional well-being. 

Training isn’t always detrimental to focus, either. Anecdotally, some athletes find that after training, their focus actually increases. This study demonstrated that lower intensity workouts can actually result in increased acute cognitive performance. So, there is a line where exercise improves cognitive performance instead of hurting it.

Working Around Mental Fatigue

All in all, some mental fatigue is unavoidable. After a hard race, a high-intensity workout, or a demanding group ride, you just might not feel as sharp as you did before training. What you can do is continue to nourish yourself, hydrate, get plenty of rest, and listen to your body’s signals. If your brain is too tired for VO2-Max intervals, that’s reason enough to swap your intervals for a recovery session instead. Similarly, when you know you have an unavoidable stressful day coming up, you can move your challenging workouts accordingly. It takes time to find out where your threshold lies, but it’s another way to ensure that your training remains a rewarding process.

References and Further Reading