Decision Fatigue in Endurance Sports

The Importance of Being Fresh for Hard Workouts

Imagine you have a 20 minute threshold test tomorrow—an all out effort on the bike that, if performed properly, will leave you bent over your handlebars on the verge of vomiting, if not throwing up outright. Such intense, long efforts weigh on the minds of athletes not only because they know how much pain they’ll be in, but because there’s a lot of importance resting on their performance. Key workouts, including 20 minute tests, require an extra degree of mental freshness in order for success. But what is “mental freshness,” specifically? And, what can you do to go into your 20 minute test, or your workouts in general, with as much of that mental freshness as possible? 


Decision Fatigue in Athletes

For the purpose of this article, I’m only going to discuss one of the main components of mental fatigue—decision overload or decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is caused by making too many decisions throughout the day or week, or right before a key workout. Ever go grocery shopping at the end of a long day and find yourself vacantly staring at endless rows of peanut butter, wondering which one to get? You may have reached this point of indecision because of the many previous decisions you had to make in the day (and having to make another decision, albeit fairly unimportant, regarding peanut butter sure isn’t helping with that fatigue level—it’s only adding to your decision fatigue). Mental fatigue can negatively impact performance by:

  • Reducing your drive/willpower to train or compete;
  • Decreasing your power on the bike or pace during running or swimming;
  • Reducing your ability to focus on form and technique; and
  • Increasing perceived exertion. 

How to Minimize Your Decision Fatigue to Optimize Your Performance in Sports and Life

1) Plan your training for early in the day before you get too tired to make sound choices. Researchers at Cornell University estimate that we make an average of 226 decisions a day just about what we eat. In total they found that the average adult makes 35,000 decisions daily. Each decision wears us out slightly and makes us more likely to turn to the easiest choice or the default choice. Auto dealerships use this to their advantage. If you go to buy a car there are a lot of choices to make about the model, color, interior, heated seats, sunroof, etc. With each decision, a buyer is more and more likely to simply say, “I’ll choose whatever comes standard with the car.” The car dealership knows this and has made some of those standard features actually the more expensive decision thereby capitalizing on peoples’ decision fatigue. Similarly, an athlete who waits until the evening to do their workout is more likely to choose the default which, unless they have other forms of accountability or are accustomed to evening training, is often sitting on the couch binge-watching Mindhunter on Netflix. (Fun Fact, Mindhunter was filmed where I grew up in Pittsburgh.)

2) Write down your plans. Writing down plans or goals holds people more accountable and helps silence the voice in the back of your head asking, “Do I really want to go run right now? I’m tired, and after all, it’s raining.” I really like the Best Self Journal products that are nicely laid out for thinking about your monthly, weekly, and daily goals along with a place to record what you are grateful for each day.

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3) Make commitments that hold you accountable, such as training with a group, or friend that, regularly meets at the same time. Not only does this decrease decisions you have to make about training, but this way, you can rely on the energy of the group or a friend if you don’t have the mental freshness to get out the door yourself.  

4) Cut out small decisions from your day and create as much routine as possible. This could mean paring down your closet so you only keep a few favorite outfits, or choosing the same breakfast to have every day during the week. It can be as specific as choosing the same flavor of gel to workout with, so that you aren’t deciding which flavor you’d like right before going out to train. Another way to look at this is to pick your favorites and stick with them. Just think about how many different toothpastes there are in the grocery store. It can be overwhelming for such a small choice. But if you know you have a toothpaste that has worked in the past, you can quickly reach for that box and move on with your shopping without thinking about the other choices, saving your energy for the evening swim you have planned instead.

5) Don’t make big decisions when you are hungry. Aim to keep your blood sugar level throughout the day. This involves eating a balanced mix of carbohydrates, fat, and protein spaced out evenly. Skipping a meal and going without calories for six hours is not only a great way to decrease your glycogen stores, but also a great way to deplete your mental stamina.

6) Plan times during your day to disconnect. It is okay to politely tell your significant other, roommate, or friend, “I have reached decision fatigue for the day and it would help if you don’t ask me questions for a while.” One of our favorite authors, Johann Hari, takes himself off social media while he writes his next book. If you are preparing for a big event for work, training, or something like a wedding, minimize other forms of distractions to allow greater concentration for those few days or weeks. This is one of the many benefits of a dedicated training camp. Take away all of the little life stresses and decisions, and all of your attention can be focused on training. 

Hard Training Itself Causes Poor Decision Making

Paying attention to your ability to make decisions can also be a clue to whether or not you are overtraining. A study with 37 male triathletes showed that after three weeks of training at a 40 percent increase to their normal weekly volume, the athletes who were overtraining were more likely to choose immediate rewards over long-term gains. In the study, they chose to get $10 right now instead of $60 in six months. While triathletes need all the money they can get to buy new gear and pay for gym memberships, in my mind this study has even larger implications when you replace the financial decision with a training one. What about the athlete who is in the middle of a big training block for an endurance event who is riding the fine line of being fit vs. overtrained, and is going into a workout with a small injury? They may see the short term gains of that specific workout or small race as more important than their overall fitness for an A-race that is not for another four months. On the flip side, if you are in the middle of a big training block or a camp setting, it may be smart to avoid making big life decisions (like deciding to buy a second home in Tucson so you can skip winter forever). 

How Having a Coach Helps With Decision Fatigue

A coach’s role is to help you make smart decisions around your training. This includes setting up the workouts, but also being available to tell you when you should sit out a session to avoid injury or illness and holding you accountable when you simply are tired. Coaches are great people to go to for advice on questions like, “What should I wear on race day?”, “How many calories should I take in per hour?”, and “Do you think it is a bad idea to sprint the first mile of my marathon?” By asking your coach these questions you are not only getting advice but you are also eliminating decisions, which frees up your mind to focus on the workout or race. At Be the Beast Coaching we love helping our athletes through decisions and encourage them to simplify decision-making in their own life to minimize mental fatigue.

Additional Reading

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength: by Roy Baumeister

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear



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