Choosing or suffering: are you really lucid during exercise?


If there is one resource that is in demand each day, it is our self-control capacity. But in the effort, how does it evolve? Because knowing how to manage yourself is one of the important performance factors: rectifying the stride despite fatigue, adjusting to the hazards of the terrain, being responsive to competitors, not forgetting to do this or that… How does our self-control evolve? Why? What’s at stake? Elements of response.


While laboratory results consistently demonstrate the benefits of chronic physical exercise on mental health (e. g., less decline in cognitive ability with age), research on the effects of acute exercise on cognitive functioning is much less conclusive.

In sports science, it is common to observe differences in cognitive performance depending on the complexity of an operation to be solved (memorize, calculate, anticipate, adapt, etc.), according to the intensity of exercise, the degree of training of the individual, his level of fatigue, hydration or the thermal environment. In other words, the potential to choose quickly and well is not only personal, but above all it is never the same twice during the effort.



In fact, it seems that the ability to maintain one’s lucidity is first improved during exercise. This means that at the start of the event, the same technical or tactical choice (stroke, swim amplitude, start an attack or response to an attack) can be made faster and more judiciously.

Then, because of the increasing stress experienced by the organism (internal heat accumulation, depletion of energy stocks, muscular traumas, etc.), the cognitive improvement initially noticed gradually dissipates. The individual becomes more impulsive, more “automatic”: we observe longer, but often still good reactions. In fact, the frontal part of the brain accumulates too much information from the body to maintain its decision-making efficiency on a competing task.

If the effort continues then, logically, a cognitive decline is observed. The ability to regulate one’s emotions/behaviour decreases: this is often what explains the unfair gestures, some injuries and a large part of endurance performance. Indeed, we know today that the individuals with the strongest mental resistance/emotional intelligence are also the ones who are most tolerant to the constraints of performance. Hence the adage “difficult training, easy competition”.

Note that this dynamic is subject to accelerators and inhibitors. For example, the warmer it gets, or the more you get hungry at the beginning of your effort, the faster your “cognitive decline”. Thus, while the timing of this decline is specific to each individual, the effects of such a deleterious phenomenon are known by all.



Anecdotally, our experience reminds us of the key moments in our competitions: the ones where the difference was made compared to other competitors. Certainly, these moments sometimes refer to better physiological qualities (e. g., to hold a given power for a longer period of time). But these moments also frequently echo bright tactical decisions (or, conversely, unexplained behaviours!). For example, a good lucidity can be observed during transitions in triathlon (handling of materials), tactical choices (anticipation of the rest of the event), sprints (maintaining technical efficiency). On the other hand, a loss of lucidity can be illustrated in trail faults (punctual dreams), through a drop in pedalling cadence or food omissions.



Once the race is launched, the first idea will be to know when to choose to pay attention and when not to do so. The great champions, on the other hand, manage to stay involved for a long time AND intensely in their efforts. But that takes practice. So, to avoid that the dropout moments are “fatal” for your performance, it will be necessary to succeed in “getting out of the race” at the opportune moments: once carried by a group, on a well defined straight line, on a little twisted path, after having verified that you have ate/hydrated… In less favourable scenarios, getting mentally out of the race this way can make you miss valuable information (time in advance, pace…).

But sometimes, get out “voluntarily” is not enough to avoid having your head in the clouds. So, if this drift becomes frequent and that struggling mentally to stay focused becomes painful, get ergogenic aids. In other words, use solutions to feed your brain with resources to stay on track: rinse your mouth with a sweet/cold drink; cool your neck; go back to known/automatic tactical patterns; soak up the crowd’s motivation; shout out loudly; count your pedal strokes; rhythm your ventilation (ex: 2-3, 2-5…).



The aim of the training will be to try to delay the time of onset of this cognitive decline in order to benefit as long as possible from the positive effect of the release of catecholamines (adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine…) on the activation of the central nervous system and the good processing of information. To this end, three ideas can be put forward:

1. Regularly submit to heavy mental strain. The idea here could be to carry out your usual training sessions after rather than before your work day/class, on an empty stomach rather than satisfied, by doing Stroop tasks on your computer, revising your last lesson, reciting a poem, being in difficult conditions (rain, alone, night, fatigue…). Here you will exacerbate the difficulty of your effort, while objectively, the session will be exactly the same as usual. Attention: changes of ground supports and uneven terrain are not permitted here. They do not mix well with a decrease in proprioception (i. e., risk of injury).

2. Automatize, during your training sessions, racing patterns that work for you and you alone. For example, drive hard for 3km and lower the pace for 1km; alternate pull/push and pedal round on the bike; adapt your stride to the slope and path; use key words/phrases that help you; plan ahead in your race to anticipate your future reactions. Caution: don’t do everything at the same time! One strategy after the other, it’s better to appropriate them. Automatize, it is certainly bringing a certain lassitude but it can also preserve you during a race by sparing you useless efforts (ex: to have to redefine perpetually your strategy). Moreover, automatize means being able to resist to changes in rhythms imposed by the group, especially if you are a competitor.

3. Recovery! Essential to restore all of your mental resources to reduce the mental load to a given intensity. It involves both nutrition (periodization between the increase in energy reserves and fasting periods), cross training (reduction of the constraints imposed on the organism but maintenance of mental load) and sleep (reinforcement of stress tolerance).