Cognitive Fatigue Training

By Evan Peikon

This is an article i’ve been wanting to release for months, but have kept on the back burner for various reasons. At one point I considered scrapping it entirely as I didn’t feel I explained my thoughts eloquently enough (I still don’t), which is partially due to the limitations of written, short form, content. The second reason for my hesitation to put this out is that my, theoretical, concept model was incomplete up until recently- though it is still evolving, as are the prescriptions I will give to my athletes to train this characteristic (as with physical training, no two athletes mental frameworks are the same). 

The information provided below is not directly related to the methods/ prescriptions outlined later in this article, but a general understanding of the topics is needed to understand the mechanisms at play, why the prescriptions are structured as they are, and the neurological phenomena from which I built this model (ie- The “whys” behind the “whats”).

Theories of Emotion:
First and foremost we must cover the dominant theories of emotion and their implications on this model.

Lange Theory of Emotion- According to the Lange theory of emotion changes in our autonomic nervous system precede and produce emotions. That it to say that we experience emotions as a result of autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity.

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion- On the other hand the cannon-bard theory states that ANS changes are independent of emotion, and that thalamic activity of the cortex creates emotion.

However, there are a few issues with both of these opposing theories. The first being that emotion can be observed in the absence of physiological responses; and the second being that artificial ANS stimulation can produce emotions (ie- the faults of Lange and CB respectively). Which leads us to….

The Neural Network Model of Emotion- This theory states that emotions result from cingulate cortex activity and can be evoked by either sensory stimuli (thoughts) or physiological streams (feelings); and that these streams overlap/ affect one another.

In short what this all means is that our emotions can alter our physiology/thoughts and our physiology/thoughts can alter our emotions (ie- a two stream circuit). The implications of this statement are huge to say the least and upon further thought you can easily see how negative emotions like doubt or pain (yes, pain is an emotion) can be caused by physiological processes as a result of exercises, and further perpetuate the cycle if left unchecked. On the other hand learning to cope with said emotions, and strengthen our cognitive endurance, can prevent mental breakdown in high stress scenarios. Which leads us to the next section….

Cognitive Endurance: Training our Emotions
At rest our minds are in a state of cognitive ease. Meaning that there are no threats, or need to redirect attention. Conversely, cognitive fatigue is a state in which a problem exists. Cognitive fatigue results from high, mental or physical, efforts and the presence of unmet demands. In the presence of cognitive fatigue we must fight to maintain effort, and any slips will lead to a decrease of output. As with other elements, we must train to our cognitive endurance directly to improve it to a high degree. Which, is the purpose of this article. Before we get into the details of how we increase cognitive endurance i’m going to lay out the following scenario….

To start, lets say you progress an athlete such that they should theoretically have the potential to get 300 cals on the AD in 10 minutes (based on training results/ progressions). But, when you test it they don’t quite reach their physical potential due to whatever is, or isn’t, going on in their mind. My hypothesis is that the breaks between intervals not only allow for some physical recovery, but also allow for a high degree of cognitive/mental recovery (ie- we use the breaks to regain footing/ mentally prepare for the upcoming work, or unmet demands). While this type of training yields the correct physiological adaptation it does nothing for the athletes “mental capacity” so to speak. So, as a solution you can give an athlete cognitively demanding tasks (of a very specific sort) between intervals which will inhibit their ability to mentally recovery between intervals (note that they’re physical output will not be as high because of this). Then when the time comes to retest they will have the mental and physical capacity to excel. Obviously this is a gross oversimplification of the interplay between mental/ physical capacity, as well as the physiological processes that dictate training adaptation,  but for the sake of explanation it suffices.

Cognitive Endurance Training:
So now that i’ve defined cognitive fatigue, and explained the goal of cognitive fatigue training, it’s time to discuss the methods/ prescriptions. But first, more definitions…

According to psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West our brains operate via two distinct systems. Daniel Kahneman, author of thinking fast and slow, explains the functions of these two systems concisely when he states…

“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of system 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. “

At this point you may be wondering why this is relevant. The reason is that conflict between these two systems creates cognitive strain. So, by inducing cognitive strain voluntarily, and at the right moment, we can utilize it and strengthen our abilities to keep it at bay. Consequently, improving our cognitive endurance and decreasing the aforementioned cognitive fatigue that hinders performance.

So, how do we induce cognitive voluntarily? The answer is that we must create conflict between our automatic (fast), heuristic, cognitive processes and our logical (slow) cognitive processes. To give you an example, lets take the following statement…

In a lake there is a patch of lily pads. Every day the patch doubles in size. It takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake. How long does it take the patch to cover half the lake? 24 or 47 days. (Answer as fast as possible).

When answering this questions our immediate thought is that it takes 24 days. This solutions comes to us automatically, and makes intuitive sense. However, it is also wrong. In this scenario system 1 kicks into gear and gives us a quick answer. In order to solve the riddle correctly we must shift to using system 2. But, the process of doing so creates conflict between the two systems. Thus causing cognitive strain/fatigue.

 Note- In this concept model we are using the conflict between systems as a training tool, meant to increase our resistance to cognitive strain, which will allow us to gain control over the neural network model (ie- preventing a negative feedback loop of physiological processes causing self doubt/ negative emotions and vice versa).

Training Prescriptions & Methods:
As preciously mentioned the process of cognitive fatigue training involves the induction of conflict between systems 1& 2 in the midst of physical training. As previously mentioned it is important to note that most athletes will not be able to perform to their physical potential while trying to improve their cognitive endurance concurrently. Because of this it is important that the physical work performed is sub-maximal, and dose appropriately such that it is challenging, but doable.

During these workouts we induce conflict with “games” or app such as the stroop test, in between intervals, which hinders our ability to mentally recover.
Note- You can get an app called “EncephalApp – Stroop Test”, among others, that will make this process more efficient. 

An example workout may look something like…..
___ Sets:
300m Row @2k PR pace
:60 Stroop Test during rest (on rower)
*Note- There are dozens of workout variations that can be performed, but this gets the point across well. 

As previously mentioned most athletes will not be able to perform to their physical potential while trying to improve their cognitive endurance concurrently. Because of this it is important to time the use of these training sessions. The most effective, and important, time to use these methods is during a peaking/ pre-competition phase. At this point the physical training is done, and we can use these workouts to sharpen the mind/ give our bodies a break (ie- shifting the training stress from physical–>mental). However, we want to use these workouts sparingly as to now hurt an athletes confidence as they are psychologically stressful. Because of this it is important that athletes gain exposure to this type of work earlier on. My recommendation is as follows…

Off season- 0 to 1 session per month.
Intensification- 1 to 2 sessions per month (for exposure)
Pre-Comp Phase- weekly or every other week.
Competition Phase- No exposure (at this point all cognitive fatigue workouts should be replaces with “confidence workouts”).

Closing Thoughts & Further exploration:
Though this was a long(er) article I feel I barely scratched the surface of what I have to say about this topic. A LOT of information/ context was left out of this article for logistical reasons, and needless to say a static article can seldom do such dynamic topics justice.  That being said, i’ll be writing a few, shorter, follow up pieces discussing the strong points and shortcomings of this model, as well as areas for further research. Such as how pain, as an emotion, ties into this model and how athletes can shift their perspectives/ alter their mental frameworks, via mindfulness practices, to improve performance (which is a massive topic in an of itself). It is also important to note that this a theoretical model. The mechanisms behind it’s results may in fact be different, but this is the framework I created
to house it/ the way I conceptualized it.

The Hierarchy of Training (Pt.3): Athlete Assessment

By Evan Peikon
This Article is the third installment in the Hierarchy of Training Series. Before continuing I recommend you check out the first two installments, which you can find HERE & HERE, to get some background info on the previously discussed concepts.

In this article i’m going to discuss the general concepts surrounding athlete assessment/ testing, and how to subsequently structure an athletes program relative to said testing phase, time of year, individual makeup etc.

Best Practices:
First and foremost, the most important element of testing is to make sure that the battery of tests you present an athlete with are valid. Meaning that the tests actually isolate the characteristic you are trying to get data on. For example, lets take open WOD 13.1 (10 Min AMRAP: PS & DU’s)… One can argue that this is a test of aerobic power, and one may also be right in saying so. However, it can also be a test of muscular endurance, postural stamina, skill under fatigue and so on. In this instance it is pretty easy to see how this is not a valid test of aerobic power, or overall aerobic capacity.

But, its not always that cut and dry. I’ve programmed for athletes who have gotten fantastic scores on simple, cyclical, tests of aerobic power such as a 10 minute airdyne for max cals despite the fact that they had poor aerobic development and the successes were solely predicated on a high pain threshold and willingness to suffer greatly.
Which is why we not only need a battery of valid tests, but also a large scope of tests that span different extremes to paint a full picture. After establishing validity you must also assure the tests are reliable and applicable. ie) Do top scores on said test correlate with performance in this sport/ is the score spread large enough to extrapolate data.

Types of Tests:
When assessing my athletes I categorize tests in three different ways:

1) ID Tests-   These are used to figure out an athletes individual makeup, relative strengths/ weaknesses, and how they are hard wired. After putting an athlete through ID testing I will know where they fall on the spectrum of powerful to enduring, if they are stronger than fast (or vice versa), how developed their cp-recovery/ aerobic/ anaerobic systems are, and if they need to prioritize absolute strength over muscular endurance (or vice versa).

2) Absolute Tests- Absolute tests are used to determine where an athlete sits relative to their competition for a given characteristic. For example- Whereas an ID test will tell me if an athlete is more enduring than they are powerful an absolute test will tell me how enduring/ powerful they are relative to other athletes. This concept can then be further extrapolated to individual tests and training characteristics.
Note- if the absolute tests you’ve designed are valid/ applicable to the sport an athletes results on a given test should tell you how they stack relative to other athletes in the sport for that given characteristic (assuming you have enough data from athletes at different levels).

The most difficult part of designing an absolute test is that it must target the same characteristic in all athletes to be valid. For this reason simplicity is king. For example, a 60 Minute Row for max distance is a far superior test of aerobic endurance as compared to 60 minute amrap due to the low muscular endurance/ skill component (ie- minimizing variables as you would in a scientific study). However, there is a time and place for blended tests (as it is the corner stone of the sport). In these instances I recommend combining testing characteristics in as many ways as possible to paint a full picture. Examples include…. Muscular endurance w/ or w/o a respiration component, aerobic power w/ or w/o a muscular endurance component, postural strength under fatigue, etc..

3) Relative Tests- The simplest way to explain relative tests is that the testing characteristic is relative to the athlete taking the test. For example, lets take the following workout….

5 Rounds For Time:
10 Kipping Deficit HSPU @6”

10 Deadlifts @275
50 Double Unders

Depending on the athlete this can be a muscular endurance, aerobic power, or cp recovery based test (ie- it’s relative to the individual). The purpose of these “relative tests” are to determine if an athlete improved upon a given training characteristic. For example- If I determine an athlete need to improve their CP-recovery system in a mixed modal setting I will design a test that I know elicits that response (for them). Then we can objectively determine if they improved upon that training characteristic down the line  (ie- if they improve their score on the test we will know it is not due to another factor).

Note: The actual process I use for testing a quite a bit more dynamic, but in order to make it comprehensible in written form it’s necessary present it as a static “A+B = C” closed system. While it may seem like the process is based around input/ outputs, in actuality it is based around the “whys”. Ie) Knowing that an athlete needs to improve muscular endurance isn’t what’s important. The key is knowing WHY their muscular endurance is lacking (Do they need to improve localized mitochondrial density, global oxygen consumption, and subsequently their aerobic system…etc).

Hierarchical Testing:
After putting an athlete though the aforementioned types of tests you must figure out how to prioritize the elements they need to improve. An easy, albeit oversimplified, way to conceptualize this is to use the hierarchy depicted in part one of the series. In this instance you can determine where an athlete sits on the hierarchy and subsequently prioritize their training in terms of where they lie relative to it. Another way to utilize the hierarchy is to reformat your “absolute testing phase” in a hierarchical manner (as seen in the concept map below).

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 3.30.12 PM Hormonal Assessment:
Performance is built on a foundation of mental and hormonal health (though health and performance can be diametrically opposed at times). Which is why it is critical that these systems are optimized to the best of our abilities. As it currently stands the most efficient  way to asses an athletes hormonal state is through the use of an ASI (adrenal stress index) which will give data on an athletes DHEA, cortisol, testosterone, estriol, estradiol, progesterone, and melatonin levels. As with physical assessment figuring out WHY things are the way they are here will be critical to restoring an optimal state.

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 7.15.24 PM
When laying out the framework for a program we need to take the following into account….
1) Strengths/ Limitations  —> to determine priorities.
2) Individual Makeup  —> to determine what methods will be effective.
3) Time of Year  —> to determine what types of methods are appropriate
4) Mental/Hormonal Status  —> foundational elements (interplay w/ volume & intensity)

*Again, this is oversimplifying a dynamic, fluid, concept model.

Case Study:
The following mini case study is with an athlete i’ve worked with for ~9 months. Since I already have extensive data on this athlete the scope of testing sampled below is limited to absolute/ relative tests performed over the course of the past month as part of an offseason assessment.

Tests Used:
Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 7.28.43 PM Based on the results of this testing phase, as well as previous assessments, i’ve determined that this athletes training priorities going forward are….
1) Aerobic base development
2) Gymnastic Pullup Strength/ Overhead Pressing strength
3) Gymnastic Based muscular endurance
4) CP Battery/ Recovery @moderate loads 

Based on the aforementioned training priorities, time of year (offseason), and athlete ID I wrote the following training split (M/Tu/W/Fr/Sa), which will be used for the next eight weeks before reassessing progress and adjusting the split moving forward. 

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.08.03 PM


Powerful Vs. Enduring

physed-480 By Evan Peikon  
This is a two part article on training powerful athletes versus enduring athletes. The first portion will focus exclusively on how to identify an athlete as powerful or enduring, while the second will focus on the programming application side of things (among other topics). So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way and have identified the purpose of this piece we can get going…..

In most instances coaches characterize athletes as powerful or enduring based on a number of factors. However, these characterizations are often subjective and are based on relativities and comparisons rather than concrete data. But there is a better, objective, way to make these assessments. Which, is through the use of speed preservation tests.
*Note that we use specific cyclical and mixed tests/ assessments on our athletes. But, those tests and their implications are beyond the scope of this article. So, this serves as a good objective measure for those looking to asses themselves/ their clients without that knowledge base. 

The way that the test works is by taking an athletes 1k, 2k, 3k, and 5k Row PR’s and finding the following ratios between them….
1. 2,000m : 5,000m
2. 1,000m : 2,000m
3. 2,000m : 3,000m
4. 3,000m : 5,000m

With on this data we can plot a line on a graph and quantitatively measure our athlete against seven theoretical avatars (which will be explained later in the article…).
*Note that this test is best done with rowing as MOST crossfit athletes are proficient enough that technique does not skew the data (versus running where VERY FEW athletes have the required technical proficiency. Seriously…. Crossfit athletes on a whole have dog shit running mechanics).

Testing Phase:
As previously stated, we will need an athletes 1k, 2k, 3k, and 5k Row PR’s to run the numbers on this test. Most crossfit athletes have 1k and 2k PR’s on hand already, so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue to throw the 3k and 5k into an athletes testing phase to get the full range of data moving forward. So, as previously stated we will need to calculate the following ratios…

1. 2,000m : 5,000m
2. 1,000m : 2,000m
3. 2,000m : 3,000m
4. 3,000m : 5,000m

In order to calculate these you will need to do the following equation:
(PR Pace of Distance #1) / (PR Pace of Distance #2) = ___ x100 
*Note- units for pace = seconds. 

So For Example…
An athlete has a 1k PR of 3:00 (1:30/500m or 90s/500m) and a 2k PR of 7:00(1:45/500m or 105s/500m). 

So in this instance you would calculate their speed preservation for test #2 as follows…..
(90 seconds) / (105 seconds) = .857 x100 = 85.7%

Athlete Classification Types :
Once you calculate the ratios for all four tests you can compare them to the following “Athlete Classification Types”. While your specific numbers may not match any of them exactly, it should be clear where you fall on the spectrum. So for example an athlete with the following numbers (85%, 90%, 89%, 95%) will fall in between Type A & Type B.

Type A- 84.5%, 89%, 87%, 94%
Type B- 86.5%, 92%, 90%, 95.5%
Type C- 88%, 93.5%, 91.8%, 96%
Type D- 90%, 93.8%, 93%, 96.5%
Type E- 91.5%, 94.2%, 94.8%, 97%
Type F- 92.5%, 94.8%, 95.8%, 97.5%
Type G- 93.5%, 95.8%, 96.3%, 97.8%
*%’s represented as test 1, test 2, test 3, test 4

So what do these classification types mean…..

Classification Meaning
In Order of Increasing Power:

G< F< E< D< C< B< A
*Ie- A is the most powerful & G Is the least powerful.

In Order of Increasing Endurance:
A< B< C< D< E< F< G
*Ie- G is the most enduring & A is the least enduring.

Specialty Time Domain Per Classification Type:
Type A/ B- ~2-4 Minutes (~Lactic Endurance)

Type C/D- ~6-8 Minutes (~Aerobic Threshold/Power)
Type E/F- ~10-20 Minutes (~Aerobic Power/ Endurance)
Type G- ~20+ Minutes (~Aerobic Endurance)

Athlete Case Study
Athletes PR’s
1k- 3:14.4,  2k- 7:03,  3k- 11:17,  5k- 18:47

Athletes Speed Preservation Scores:
2000m/5000m- 94% 1000m/2000m- 92% 2000m/3000m- 96% 3000m/5000m- 98%

Based on the Classifications above This athlete would match the most closely with Type F, meaning that they fall on the enduring end on the spectrum with  their speciality being in the 10-20 minute range. *Note that this athlete was previously a 3200m & 5k Running Specialist.

Moving Forward:
Now that you have an idea of where you (or your athletes) fall on the spectrum of powerful –> enduring, and have a base level of knowledge on how your athlete’s “engine” operates, it’s time to explore the implications and how to properly train/ prescribe training based upon it. Which leads us to the implications section. 

These are general patterns i’ve recognized based on an extended analysis of both my exclusive coaching clients and followers of the HPA Competitor’s Blog. As such, these recommendations MUST be taken in that context, and interpreted as a statistical average of multiple individuals. 

Note- Individual makeup is king. Rather than applying this information directly you should use it as a starting point for future analyses or apply it to the current paradigm centered around a given athlete (ie- Don’t scrap what you already have. Apply one thing at a time, asses the results, adjust your athlete centric paradigm as needed, then start over). 

Consistency/ Progression Schemes:
In my experience “Type A” athletes tend to be less consistent, and more temperamental, in terms of pure numbers from week to week (regardless how how things “feel”). Whereas you can guess with high certainty what numbers/ scores/ times a “Type G” athlete will get on a given lift/ workout. Based on observation i’ve also found that “type G” athletes tend to have a slower skill acquisition rate, though it is highly likely that this is a correlative relationship rather than causative (ie- Type G athletes tend to come from low skill endurance based sports, so there is a selection bias in place here).Knowing this you can adjust progression schemes as needed to account for ups and downs in numbers, skill acquisition rates, and individual athlete’s speeds of adaptation on given elements (ie- How quickly do they adapt to abs strength vs musc end vs aerobic threshold progressions etc). 

Metcon Tactics:
Often times more powerful athletes fare better with short sets/ short rest, whereas more enduring athletes can string together longer sets with more moderate rest times. This especially holds true in CP-recovery, or muscular endurance, based testing scenarios. However, both approaches should be applied in training and refined to match the individual. 

Note- These strategies are only applicable to a specific subset of testing scenarios as discussed above. As such they are not recommended in  lighter/ higher turnover/ ES based testers. 

Aerobic Base Development:
Lower (relative) intensity, cyclical, efforts should be used when trying to develop a more powerful athlete’s aerobic base to ensure they are getting the correct training stimulus (eccentric cardiac hypertrophy, mitochondrial density, angiogenesis etc). If they were to follow the same progression scheme/ prescription as a moderate → enduring athlete it would not only yield lackluster results, but may also worsen their aerobic development in some circumstances. 

Conversely enduring athletes often need high(er) relative intensities to further develop their aerobic systems and get lackluster results with the typical 85% (moderate approach). Also note that there are more options both in movement selection and training methods when dealing with aerobic base development in enduring athletes (ie- tempos, fartleks, progression runs etc with less strong of a focus on low tension, and cyclical, movements).

Strength Hierarchy:
I’ve covered this topic in depth HERE. But, as a general statement enduring athletes often need to further development their base strength level (regardless of how “good” or “bad” their CP-recovery system/ muscular endurance are. Ie- if you can’t lift the weight you can’t play the game). On the other hand stronger, more powerful, athletes often reach a point of diminishing return where additional strength gains do not yield further gains in performance. In this scenario CP-recovery/ muscular endurance must be prioritized (gross overgeneralization). 

Note- There are also correlations with absolute strength/ speed development (ie- is an athlete stronger than fast or faster than strong), but I will simply defer you to an extensive article on that topic that I wrote for the performance menu journal. Which you can find HERE.