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.

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