As an endurance sports coach, I am constantly concerned about and monitoring the fatigue levels of the athletes who I work with. In fact, one could make a very strong case that that is exactly what coaches do: manage fatigue. A solid training plan/program is a mindful, deliberate balance between increasing training stress and load in combination with appropriate periods of recovery to encourage the body to adapt in the way that both the athlete and coach want it to so that the athlete can continue to make forward progress toward their goals.
Fatigue doesn’t only come from training; it can come from our daily lives. Balancing a job, a family, a social life, etc. can all cause an athlete to experience fatigue, and these stressors are also things that a good coach monitors in order to ensure that sport is included in the athlete’s life in the most balanced way possible. An athlete will never reach their potential in sport if they are stressed at work or at home, and this relationship works the other way, too. Stress is stress, and the body doesn’t care whether it comes from sport or from life. As such, all things that contribute to stress and/or fatigue must be considered in order to plan the best path possible for the athlete.
When charting a course to a goal or planning a week of training, most athletes and coaches can acknowledge if a hard workout is hard or the impact that a rough day at work can have on an athlete. But there is something that has a tremendous impact on the athlete’s life and ability to complete workouts that I’ve found that athletes and (some) coaches alike rarely give a second thought: decision fatigue.
What is decision fatigue? Simply put, decision fatigue is a person’s inability to make an infinite amount of decisions without paying a biological price. It most commonly occurs within a single day, but it can occur over longer periods of time as well. It’s different than what we typically consider “fatigue” - which is the physical feeling of tiredness that we feel after a long day or hard work. Someone who is experiencing decision fatigue is low on mental energy. As a person makes more choices throughout a day, each choice gets harder for their brain to make.
By the end of a given day, the average person will have made approximately 35,000 decisions - from seemingly small choices like what to wear to bigger ones like which vehicle to purchase. Eventually, the person's brain gets tired and looks for the path of least resistance when making a choice. Sometimes this comes in the form of making a choice impulsively without thinking the consequences of the action through. Some examples: saying something without considering how another person will feel, eating fast food even though you know it will make you feel sick later on, or completing a workout the way that the athlete wants to rather than how it was planned in the grand scheme of the training plan. Other times, the brain chooses the “best” energy saver that it detects: to do nothing (i.e. skipping a workout). Like in so many situations in life, doing nothing is often a “good” short-term decision (as it eases the mental strain that comes with having to make a choice), but it results in less-than-desirable long-term consequences.
Decision fatigue impacts some people more than others, but ultimately, it does impact all people in some form or another. I see it most often manifested in athletes who have extremely busy, packed daily schedules with a lot of commitments or in schedules where they must manage a lot of logistics. For example, athletes who work from home tend to experience it a bit less than athletes who have to commute to/from work or travel a lot for work. I also see it in athletes who want to do ALL the things, such as cook all meals from scratch, grow all their own vegetables in a garden, work a full-time job, have a sparkling clean house and manicured lawn, nail every single one of their scheduled workouts without deviation, and be at every major event for each member of their family. This doesn’t come as a surprise since many athletes (by their very goal-setting nature) are Type A and have a least a little sliver of perfectionism within them.
What does all of this mean for athletes? It means that if an athlete is experiencing decision fatigue that they may very well not get in a workout if the workout is left to be completed later in the day after they have reached their capacity of decision-making. It also might mean that seemingly “easy” tasks become insurmountably difficult. Self-awareness (one of the Three Pillars of Training over here at Full Circle Endurance) on the part of the athlete is critical to identify this. A solid, respectful coach-athlete relationship is also important so the coach can help guide the athlete to take the best steps possible to bring things back into balance and to keep the athlete progressing down the path to their goal.
When I recognize that an athlete might be experiencing decision fatigue, I try to gently guide them in the direction of self-care and awareness. Acknowledging that is going on and taking time to rest the mind AND the body is often critical to resolving this. Yoga, meditation, a diverting activity such as a walk around the neighborhood, or sleep are often great tools to get a short-term resolution that makes the athlete feel better quickly.
With regard to managing this long-term: if workouts are very important to them, I often suggest that they block time slots for workouts earlier in the day and implement this practice on the regular. By completing the workout earlier in the day, the athlete has the opportunity to feel accomplished for getting the workout in, and they don’t risk that they will have made too many choices over the course of their day to make yet ANOTHER choice do to a workout later on (thereby missing the workout entirely or completing it in such a way that makes them feel like they “failed” the workout).
Basically, we want to prioritize the decisions that are actually the most important to them (workouts or otherwise), and then let the choices that are not as important fall later in the day time-wise. This way, if the athlete does decide to make an alternate choice or to do nothing as a result of decision fatigue, those choices are not impacting the things that are the most important to them.
Another tactic is to reduce the amount of decisions one makes and/or limit options. Things like planning what to wear in advance (President Obama famously only wore two colors of suits while he was in office for this reason) and meal planning for a few days at a time (how many times in your life has deciding what's for dinner been a very difficult chore?) can really make a big difference. This is yet another reason why having a coach can be really helpful; the coach decides what is best workout-wise with your schedule and goals, and it's one more thing you can go on "autopilot" for, thereby significantly reducing the amount of sport-related decisions that you need to make.
If you think that you might be prone to experiencing decision fatigue, I encourage you to consider best practices that will enable you to set yourself up for success and to have an open dialogue with your coach about how you can both manage this best together. If you don’t have a coach, I suggest having a conversation with a trusted friend or accountability partner who is deeply invested in you so that they can help you navigate the best path possible for yourself. Doing so may very well enhance the sense of accomplishment you feel on a day-to-day basis, which will, in turn, increase your chances of success for any/all goals you set!
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.