A study by researchers across universities in the UK, Spain, Italy and Denmark which involved participation from ‘highly trained and elite’ cyclists has found that adding cognitively demanding tasks after standard physical training has been completed, also known as “Brain Endurance Training” (BET) can benefit cycling performance.
Professor Christopher Ring, one of the authors behind the study published in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, told road.cc that although for the research they used various cognitive and psychological tests, activities like using social media or playing video games could potentially be a “natural” way to fatigue the brain.
“One of the big sources of mental fatigue, which everybody is probably guilty about it these days is using social media,” he said. “Studies over the last couple of years have showed that if you engage in social media for 30 minutes or so, it puts you in a state of mental fatigue. So that’s sort of a fairly naturalistic way. Lots of people are also playing video games on their phone, some people have claimed that that can produce a state of mental fatigue.”
According to the researchers, 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,” they said.
Professor Ring, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, said: “When athletes carry out 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.
“Interestingly, if you look at all the physiological parameters, if you look at aerobic fitness, peak oxygen uptake (VO2), lactate threshold, heart rate, before and after, they're identical, so you’re not changing physiology. What you're changing is your perception of that physiological load.”
“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 athlete’s training needs, so they are able to use these tools even within a busy and demanding schedule.”
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, accustomed to cycling around 250 km 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 listened to neutral sounds following their physical workout.
After six weeks, the BET group improved performance on time to exhaustion 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 was accustomed to cycling around 400 km per week and classified as ‘highly trained/elite’. Again, the cyclists were split into two groups, with one half given cognitive tasks, and the other half listening to neutral sounds.
In this experiment too, 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 per cent, compared to the control groups, showing that 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 5 times per week over a 6-week period is enough to improve the overall endurance performance of highly trained and elite road cyclists.
For the study, the researchers used a platform called Soma NPT which the athletes could access through their phones. They tried different tasks, some of which needed them to make a certain response, and others which involved inhibiting responses. One of the tasks used is called the Stroop Task, which involves naming the ink colour of a colour word but with a mismatch between ink colour and word.
Prof Ring said: “The idea is that you're kind of you're overloading the brain by forcing it to respond and inhibit, which is cognitively taxing. So after people trained, we used these to sort of create mental fatigue in the athlete.
“You might not necessarily see benefits with that straightaway, but if you push them if they’ve been doing lots of exercise for a number of hours, that's when you’ll see the benefits of brain endurance training. Because they're now in a fatigue state, mentally fatigued and physically fatigued. And that's what separates the elite performers from the the average performer.
He pointed: “Doing BET is hard, it’s not for the faint-hearted. You have to push yourself because it essentially makes training feel harder. So if you're just like a recreational cyclist, it’s maybe not for you.”
Prof Ring, however, was a little sceptic of indulging in social media or video games right after training. “I’m not convinced if it’s sufficiently mentally taxing or not. It might be for some, but for others it could instead be relaxing,” he said.
He did point out another taxing activity that athletes could do after training: “A technical analysis of your ride with a coach,” said Prof Ring, laughing.
What about using social media before the training? Prof Ring said he wouldn't recommend that. Tadej Pogačar, take notes.
Adwitiya joined road.cc in 2023 as a news writer after graduating with a masters in journalism from Cardiff University. His dissertation focused on active travel, which soon threw him into the deep end of covering everything related to the two-wheeled tool, and now cycling is as big a part of his life as guitars and football. He has previously covered local and national politics for Voice Wales, and also likes to writes about science, tech and the environment, if he can find the time. Living right next to the Taff trail in the Welsh capital, you can find him trying to tackle the brutal climbs in the valleys.