By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Good athletes make bad decisions when they’re tired. Fatigue and exhaustion are major components of endurance sports. In training athletes are always balancing stress and recovery in order to achieve positive adaptations. During adventures and events, we manage our efforts to prolong optimal performance before fatigue and exhaustion slow us down. And even as we slow down, we continue managing intensity, nutrition, and mental toughness in order to wring every last ounce of performance out of our tiring bodies and minds. Whether you’re competing or pursuing a personal goal, your ability to make good decisions when you’re exhausted can be the difference between a hard earned triumph and a demoralizing defeat. Over the past 40 years I’ve seen thousands of exhausted athletes go down in flames, and here are the top five worst mistakes they make.
They stop eating and drinking
Exhaustion turns some intelligent, rational athletes into obstinate 4-year-olds. Nothing tastes good. The bars are too crunchy. The gels are too sticky. The wrappers are too hard to open. Precisely at the time sports nutrition products could be most helpful, exhausted athletes reject them. This is part of the reason for developing good and consistent nutritional habits throughout your training. You want nutrition and hydration decisions to be as automatic as possible so they help you avoid exhaustion in the first place, and so that even when you get really tired you will continue following the routine on autopilot.
Train with the sports nutrition products you are going to use in competition, and even more important, train to consume those foods in the amounts and at the frequency required during competition. At the Leadville 100 Run one year, Coach Jason Koop ate 17 packs of ProBar Bolts in about 19-and-a-half hours. He ate some other foods as well, but the Bolts comprised the backbone of his nutrition strategy because he knew they worked for him and because – through training – carrying/opening/eating them at a regular frequency was second nature.
They eat way too much
At the other end of the spectrum from the athletes who stop eating and drinking, there are athletes who attempt to overcome exhaustion by piling on the calories. You can see the logic: “I am tired and out of energy. Food is energy. If I eat more, I’ll have more energy.” The problem with that logic is that athletes are conflating bonking with fatigue. If your body runs low on fuel while you are still relatively fresh, say three hours into a long ride, then consuming calories is a great solution. When you reach the point where you are physically and mentally exhausted, it is important to continue eating and drinking as normal (see above), but adding even more calories won’t reverse the exhaustion. If anything, dumping too much fuel on a dying fire will just snuff it out altogether. You’re more likely to end up with gastric distress and nausea from overloading your gut with more food and fluid than it can process.
The added caveat to both of the aforementioned mistakes is that part of training is learning to recognize and adapt your nutrition and hydration decisions based on cravings and cues. Ideally, you’ve experienced similar situations in training and know how to respond to them, but if you’re craving something salty there’s likely a reason for it. Find the chips and pretzels, even if you rarely eat them.
They go into “survival mode”
Exhaustion makes many athletes turn inward. They get very quiet, almost unresponsive, as they continue to just churn forward. Internally, they’ve concluded the only decision left is to stop thinking about it and just get to the end, whether that’s home, the finish line, or the next aid station. Survival mode can put athletes in pretty dangerous situations because they can easily tune out too much and stop eating and drinking (see above), go off course and not realize it, or fail to recognize and act accordingly to things like potholes, stop signs and traffic signals.
If you are the athlete, it’s important to resist the temptation to shut down critical thinking skills and go into survival mode. The more tired you are, the more important your decision-making capabilities become. If you are riding with someone who is shutting down, try to keep him or her engaged. If they are getting less responsive, check in on them regularly. Make sure they’re continuing to eat and drink. Make sure they don’t skip aid stations or store stops. If they’re exhibiting diminished cognitive abilities, guide them to a safe place and stop.
They reject help
I see this in cycling a lot. Riders get so exhausted they refuse to get on a wheel and draft behind another rider, despite knowing that drafting can cut a rider’s workload by 30%. Similarly, I’ve seen bonked riders refuse food and dehydrated riders refuse water. They know better, but they’re so tired they’re not making good decisions. In the cases of food/water, just be persistent. Twenty minutes after begrudgingly taking the bottle or snack just to shut you up, they’ll realize you were right and thank you for it.
Getting a tired rider to draft is sometimes trickier. They’ll tell you to leave them; they don’t want to slow you down. They’ll feel guilty about making you ride at this pace, because they don’t want to ride at this pace. And there’s also the fact drafting – even if it’s mostly second nature – requires a level of focus they may not want to bother with at the moment. Slogging on solo sucks, but at least it’s simple.
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Don’t expect a truly exhausted rider to ride a few inches from your rear wheel. If they will draft at all, they’ll typically leave more of a gap because it requires less focus. Your role is pacing as much as it is providing the draft, so don’t push them to increase the pace. Just keep them moving and help them to maintain their pace – even if that means riding side by side if they don’t feel comfortable following a wheel anymore. If you keep them from slowing down further, you’re helping get them to the next aid station or store stop sooner or reducing the total time they’re out in the elements.
They give in to negative thoughts
Even the most positive people and the greatest champions have negative thoughts. What matters is how you respond to them. Ideally, you redirect negative thoughts into positives, turning “I can’t do this” into “I’ve done this before, I can do it now.” When you’re tired, the negative thoughts often carry more weight, or put another way, we’re less likely to redirect them to positives. The dangerous thing about negative thoughts is how quickly they feed off each other, multiply, and drag you down.
Devoting time to mental skills training can be very helpful for endurance athletes. You can train your brain to recognize and respond to negative thoughts, not just generally, but also in specific situations. The mental strategy you use to dispel self-doubt and elevate confidence before a challenge is different than the mental strategy you’ll employ when you’re exhausted or trying to fight off the urge to quit.
There’s nothing wrong with being exhausted. Many endurance athletes seek exhaustion as an indication they have given everything they had. It feels good to work hard enough to have nothing left. But as you begin to get tired, the decisions you make determine how much longer you’ll be able to keep going.
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