It’s late in the fourth quarter, the third period, stoppage time or even that last mile. That is when athletic trainers, strength and conditioning specialists and coaches find out if all of that investment of time and money in physical endurance training was worth it as they watch to see if their athletes will have enough left in the tank to finish. Often though, its not necessarily the muscles or physiological systems that shut down but rather the brain in an overprotective mode. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen think they have found the exact process that contributes to this sense of fatigue while engineers at the University of California – San Diego are piloting a wearable patch that can warn when an athlete is about to hit the wall.
In his 2007 book Brain Training for Runners, Matt Fitzgerald, long-time running columnist and author detailed the role of the brain in controlling physical endurance. Traditionally, fatigue used to be considered a breakdown of biochemical balances with the buildup of lactic acid or depletion of glycogen for fuel. However, research in the 1980s showed that this breakdown did not always occur and that athletes were still able to push through at the end of a game or race even though they should have been physically exhausted.
A new theory of the brain as a “central governor” emerged. Like a warning light in your car, the brain calculates the time to physical catastrophe or total exhaustion based on the current pace and feedback signals from the body. When it feels you won’t make it to your desired finish line, it begins to lower muscle output and sends messages to your conscious brain that its time to quit.