Playing with cognitive loading

I heard in some podcast I cannot recall that combining hard mental work with physical training simultaneously can create a stronger adaptation specially on the capacity to sustain pure suffering.

They mentioned this test (link below) that can easily be done in the trainer.

In simple terms you are shown a word red, blue, green or yellow which is displayed in a specific colour that not always matches the word meaning.
You have to press a key that relates to the displayed colour not to the displayed word.
So you need to be constantly solving a cognitive conflict as fast as you can.

This seems to train the same mechanisms that one faces when physical suffering gets to a level that your brain also needs to manage the conflict between deciding to go on or deciding to protect yourself making you slow down.

Does this make sense?

I tried it a couple of times while doing some sweet spot intervals and I felt miserable to an extent that I never ever wanted to try it again.

But maybe this just means that the stress load was being hugely amplified so I should embrace the pain and get on with it to get the best adaptation bang for my time invested buck.

Any thoughts?

I’d be interested to see the link or podcast you’re post is based on :+1:

Many years ago I used to do sudoko while on the gym bike. What would take me three minutes in the warm up would take fifteen plus once the hard work started…but I don’t think that was a sign of anything other than the reduced blood flow to the brain.

Could cognitive load distract you enough to endure more pain? I believe so, but in my recent years with TR such a distraction allows my power output to slide without my noticing a reduction in suffering. I really have to focus on the TR display to keep my power up. I guess Ergo users wouldn’t have this problem.

I am still to locate the podcast but, while searching, I came across this article which seems to support the idea that mental endurance is a key performance factor.

The article touches the key point:
Are elite athletes better from the mental endurance perspective due to the amount of training stress they absorb or they are elite because they have an incredible mental endurance capacity?
It looks like a chicken vs egg like dilemma.

Anyway, the question is: can we improve our performance by doing an intentional training intervention focused in creating mental stress in a controllable way during exercise?

I am tempted to say yes here.

Some have suggested just the opposite. Workouts with high intensities and/or tough mental demands like over/unders, the physical and mental stress is already at its limit. You are trying to achieve physiological adaptations during those workouts, so limiting all other cognitive loads can help to get through those tough workouts.

If one would suggest to do it on recovery/z2 rides instead then, an argument could be made that you are adding additional mental load on a day you are supposed to have less intensity. Adding cognitive load may however be doable/desirable during SS workouts.


If the goal is maximum training effect on the body, via stress applied to/handled by the body (with the ability to push to the absolute limit), I think adding cognitive load is a negative factor. Meaning it will work against the goal (bold).

If the goal is teaching the body and mind to handle stress AND cognitive load, via stress and CL applied to the body and mind, then I think it is a a positive factor. Meaning it will work for the goal (bold).

I think the decision to include CL stress could be driven from the expected need of handling a CL during the goal event.

  1. If there you are doing a “simple” event like a TT or other effort that doesn’t take much active thought or planning, I don’t think CL work is really needed or beneficial.
  2. If you are doing a more “complex” event like a road race or other event that requires active thought, evaluation, calculation and such… then I think CL training may be a good thing.

It seems to come down to the type of stress you expect and training to include some level of that, so you are ready for the big event.


I am still struggling to locate the podcast but found some more relevant information like this article which just demonstrates what coach @chad is always preaching: cognitive fatigue impairs endurance (for the lack of a better word).

However, the interesting aspect is that if the mental fatigue is not created by the need for the brain to solve an incoherence, the impact in physical endurance performance seems to be neutral.

And here is the key aspect. Physical endurance is the constant management of an incoherence: it is a mind over matter exercise in which the brain receives multiple signs to slow down to protect the body but the athlete can hack it to a certain extent and keep on pedaling even when it hurts like hell…

I remember from that podcast that it was mentioned that the same brain region that solves the stroop test conflict seems to be involved in solving the pedal vs pain conflict.

In practical terms, a Sudoku exercise will not be as effective in creating that conflicting state.

This ideas in general seem to be quite consistent with the central govenor model from Professor Noakes. The limiter is always above the neck.

Anyway I agree with the idea that combining various forms of stress can easily derail the train but with some caution and in proper dosage maybe there is something to get from introducing this kind of stimula.

1 Like

This ties into something you mentioned in another thread. Something along the lines of throwing in unexpected intervals in a random fashion. Same result in CL.

IME this sort of training really helps you cope with unexpected changes when you’re totally spent.
If that’s what you’re after, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thanks. Link the podcast. I look forward to having a listen.

1 Like

I think it might be the following podcast:

1 Like

Yeah, one comment I’ve made in the past is the relative difference between watching the clock count down to the conclusion of an interval, vs doing it “blind” and not knowing exactly when it will end.

That unknown is something I need to work on as I begin to question my own stamina against others in a race. Too often I quit early because I think I can’t hold on longer than the others.

Doing some work with unknowns like that seems like a worthwhile challenge for me and my riding needs.

What makes all of this interesting is the different strategies that can be used to manage situations like this…

In a race situation it’s unpredictable how long our rivals can hold a certain effort, but based on the intervals we’ve been doing in training it’s predictable how long we can hold those efforts, and how many times.

Rather than increasing the cognitive load and potentially causing more discomfort, would a more helpful strategy be to reduce it? We often find the uncertain more difficult to manage than the certain, even if the certain is something we don’t like. I’ve talked about Mindfulness in another thread, and this is a strategy I use. In the race situation, it can be used to carefully and quickly make a decision on whether to go with a move or not.

Bradley Wiggins talked openly about the things he did to make the hour record more manageable, and whilst there was the physical aspect, the mental one was interesting. In a nutshell, it seemed to mostly come down to reducing the cognitive load.

This is opinion. On the other hand “I can hold X00 watts for 5 mins. The move was X00+40W at 4 mins. I dropped back” is fact. This is taking the unpredictable and making it predictable.


Yeaaahhh that is definitely the one I heard! Thanks!

1 Like

So the question is then should you artificially increase your cognitive load during indoor training so that your relative cognitive load is lower during a race? Furthermore, should we be tracking power vs weight and cognitive load? W/kg/S where S is measured in sudoku-seconds. :crazy_face:

1 Like

My main take away here is that we can put deliberate cognitive loading during workouts in the same list of complementary stresses which intention is to reach a more profound adaptation in a specific dimension.

It would be it like fasted training or a workout in higher heat conditions.

So, in the same manner that we do not always want to heat train or fast train in all kinds of workouts, we should also apply this principle to cognitive loaded workouts.

It is simply another potential useful stress factor that we can have in our toolbox.

The truth is that most of us tend to avoid it when science seems to support there is value in using it for our performance benefit.

1 Like