Tag Archives: Exercise

Showcasing the importance of Sport and Exercise Science

By Jamie McPhee, Manchester Metropolitan University, @McpheeJS

As a physiologist and a Sport & Exercise Scientist, I am always keen to be involved in opportunities to showcase the importance of Sport and Exercise Science (SES) and the exciting, important research taking place. That’s why it has been a real pleasure to work with The Physiological Society’s staff, GuildHE and SES departments across the UK to develop the Sport & Exercise Science Education: Impact on the UK Economy report that is being launched by the Shadow Minister for Higher Education in Parliament today.

The report can be broadly categorised into two parts; a quantitative section and qualitative case studies. The quantitative section combines data compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and data on student numbers and demographics provided by UK universities and colleges. It is on this information that the report’s headlines are based – SES students currently employed in the workforce contribute £3.9 billion per annum in added income to the UK’s economy. They also contribute an additional £1.4 billion to the public purse over their working lives. In addition, the qualitative case studies provide insight into how this economic impact is translated into improved health and well-being at an individual and public health level, as well as recreational and elite level sports boosting local economies and providing greater job opportunities. Indeed, the data suggests that SES courses make a financial contribution to the UK economy equivalent to over 147,300 jobs.

Physiology is at the heart of the new testing methods and data we are using at Manchester Metropolitan University, in concert with our colleagues at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, to better understand impairments affecting para-swimming competitors. By quantifying how different kinds of conditions and impairments affect technique, efficiency, drag, and power in competitive swimming, our research has created better definitions for the competitive classes in para-swimming.

The proposed revisions, including the use of 3D kinematic data and other forms of testing, offer an evidence-based classification currently being tested and evaluated by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to ensure that the IPC Classifications are kept up-to-date by the most accurate and rigorous science available in time for the Paralympic Games, hosted by Paris in 2024.

In addition to the work taking place at MMU, this project showcases case studies from other universities and colleges in this project offering SES courses, all of which can be read in the report http://www.physoc.org/sportscience. I hope that colleagues in the field will find the report’s conclusions useful in continuing to champion the economic and social benefits of SES in the UK.

Sport and Exercise Science is at the heart of tackling global challenges

By Professor Bridget Lumb, President, The Physiological Society and Professor Karen Stanton, York St John Vice-Chancellor, Vice-Chair, GuildHE

If you’re a Tottenham or Liverpool fan still rejoicing from last week’s Champion League triumphs, we don’t need to explain the power and excitement of sport. Those miraculous, edge-of-the-seat turnarounds may have only come to fruition in the final minutes of the matches, but are the result of countless hours of preparation and training by the players on the pitch. This work rests on an army of sports scientists, focused on improving performance and preventing injury. Our continued improved scientific understanding of how the body works is on display every time an athlete pushes themselves that little bit further, or runs that little bit faster.

The importance of Sports and Exercise Science extends far beyond elite athletes. Obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression: all areas in which Sport and Exercise science research is playing a pivotal role in improving the health of everyone. Research in these areas is preventing and treating conditions and diseases that cost the NHS billions every year and are becoming ever more important as we face the challenges of an ageing population.

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Sport and Exercise Science is a vital scientific discipline that plays an important role in the health and wealth of the nation. And yet too often it faces an image problem that does not match the reality. That is why The Physiological Society and GuildHE have come together to launch a major new report looking at the economic benefit of Sport and Exercise Science. The findings are clear: as well as being academically rigorous, Sport and Exercise Science courses provide enormous contributions to the UK economy – to the tune of almost £4 billion every year, supporting almost 150,000 jobs.

As well as benefiting the nation, individual students benefit financially, with graduates earning nearly £670,000 more over the course of their careers. For every £1 a student spends on their education, they get gain £5.50, which is a tremendous return on investment. The report also provides a snapshot as to how related research in Sport and Exercise Science addresses a variety of national challenges.

More than just a degree

Our project also highlights the exciting range of ways this research addresses a variety of national challenges.  At York St John University, as a core part of their studies, students volunteer their time with sports clubs, sport and exercise therapy clinics and smaller businesses, providing valuable support to organisations that would otherwise be unable to afford it at the same time as developing their own skills. Elsewhere, the University of Portsmouth undertakes research that plays a critical role in the development of new approaches to drowning prevention and water safety education. For example, this research underpins the RNLI’s “Respect the Water” National Water Safety Campaign, informing its “Float First” approach to cold-water survival.

One of the most striking things is just how many universities and colleges of all shapes and sizes are working in this space – our sample covers 30 institutions across Scotland, Wales and England and draws on data from across the UK. There are large institutions, such as the University of Exeter, and others, such as AECC University College in Bournemouth, involved in teaching, research and knowledge exchange in Sport and Exercise Science. It really is a diverse mix that supports and delivers high-quality education.

National importance

Sport and Exercise Science graduates and researchers are working in fields that are becoming increasingly important for the UK. Many graduates go on to work directly in fields related to sport and exercise, such as physiotherapists or coaches, and in turn supporting the sports industry, a major part of the UK’s cultural offer.

Sports and Exercise Science is also improving the quality of life of patients with life threatening diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. For example, Plymouth Marjon works with the NHS and others to help thousands of patients with fibromyalgia and chronic pain lead better lives. Exercise research at Northumbria University is looking at how to improve the duration and quality of life of people with cancer. Work taking place at Liverpool John Moores University is minimising the risk of stair falls, which is the leading cause of accidental death in older people. This week the British Heart Foundation found that the number of people dying from heart and circulatory diseases before they reach their 75th birthday is on the rise for the first time in 50 years, making this research even more important (the full press release can be found here).

Such research is vital as we consider how we address the global challenge of how to age well, and improve the health and welling being of us all. This will become ever more important for the UK as the government seeks to deliver its mission, defined in the Industrial Strategy, to ensure that people can enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experiences of the richest and poorest. Sport and Exercise Science research is at the heart of tackling these big issues and these courses produce dynamic and engaged graduates that are committed to addressing some of the major challenges facing society.

Obesity: hamsters may hold the clue to beating it

Apply by 28 February for our Research Grants of up to £10,000 (over a 12 to 18-month period). This scheme supports physiologists in their first permanent academic position or returning to a permanent position after a career break, to provide support for their research or to provide seed-funding to start a new project. Gisela Helfer was a 2017 awardee of this grant, and you can read about her research below:

The global obesity crisis shows no signs of abating, and we urgently need new ways to tackle it. Consuming fewer calories and burning more energy through physical activity is a proven way to lose weight, but it’s clearly easier said than done. The problem with eating less and moving more is that people feel hungry after exercise and they have to fight the biologically programmed urge to eat. To develop effective ways to lose weight, we need a better understanding of how these biological urges work. We believe hamsters hold some clues.

Hamsters and other seasonal animals change their body and behaviour according to the time of year, such as growing a thick coat in winter or only giving birth in spring. Some seasonal animals can also adjust their appetite so that they aren’t hungry when less food is available. For example, the Siberian hamster loses almost half its body weight in time for winter, so they don’t need to eat as much to survive the winter months. Understanding the underlying physiological processes that drive this change may help us to understand our own physiology and may help us develop new treatments.

How hungry we feel is controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus helps to regulate appetite and body weight, not only in seasonal animals but also in humans.

Tanycytes (meaning “long cells”) are the key cells in the hypothalamus and, amazingly, they can change size and shape depending on the season. In summer, when there is a lot of daylight and animals eat more, tanycytes are long and they reach into areas of the brain that control appetite. In winter, when days are shorter, the cells are very short and few.

These cells are important because they regulate hormones in the brain that change the seasonal physiology of animals, such as hamsters and seasonal rats.

Growth signals

We don’t fully understand how all these hormones in the hypothalamus interact to change appetite and weight loss, but our recent research has shown that growth signals could be important.

One way that growth signals are increased in the brain is through exercise. Siberian hamsters don’t hibernate; they stay active during the winter months. If hamsters have access to a running wheel, they will exercise more than usual. When they are exercising on their wheel, they gain weight and eat more. This is true especially during a time when they would normally be small and adapted for winter. Importantly, the increased body weight in exercising hamsters is not just made up of increased muscle, but also increased fat.

We know that the hamsters interpret the length of day properly in winter, or, at least, in a simulated winter day (the lights being on for a shorter duration), because they still have a white winter coat despite being overweight. We now understand that in hamsters the exercise-stimulated weight gain has to do with hormones that usually regulate growth, because when we block these hormones the weight gain can be reversed.

When people take up exercise, they sometimes gain weight, and this may be similar to what happens in hamsters when appetite is increased to make up for the increased energy being burned during exercise. This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t exercise during the winter, because we don’t naturally lose weight like Siberian hamsters, but it does explain why, for some people, taking up exercise might make them feel hungrier and so they might need extra help to lose weight.

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We need to find ways to overcome appetite. Lucky Business/Shutterstock.com

What we have learned from studying hamsters so far has already given us plenty of ideas about which cells and systems we need to look at in humans to understand how weight regulation works. This will create new opportunities to identify possible targets for anti-obesity drugs and maybe even tell us how to avoid obesity in the first place.

By Gisela Helfer@gi_helfer and Rebecca Dumbell

(This blog was originally published on The Conversation.)

Creating Champions: Road to the Olympics

By Kim Murray, Great Britain skeleton athlete, @KimMurray88

After years as a physiologist in elite sports, I thought I was pretty familiar with the life of an athlete. Then I became one myself: suddenly there was a team of support staff there to help me; numbers were being crunched and I wasn’t the one making the spreadsheet, but a data point on it. In the four years since I switched sides from exercise physiologist to full-time athlete in skeleton, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the mental and physical challenges that drive an ever better performance.

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I now train full-time in Bath, alongside around twenty other British skeleton athletes. We have a team of coaches, sport science staff and medical support staff working alongside us to produce champions. On a day to day basis I work with a coach, strength and conditioning coach and physiotherapist. However, there is much more going on behind the scenes in terms of planning and data management as well as having access to nutrition, performance lifestyle and psychological support.

The life of an athlete is not quite what I expected. Day to day can be a grind; you must find something more within yourself when you’re tired to complete a session or pick up a new technique. You’re also constantly surrounded by super humans so although to the outside you seem physically unbelievable there is always a lot of internal competition and I can be very hard on myself. What has exceeded my expectations however, is what I have been able to achieve and experience, and the friends I have made in the short time I have been part of the team. You travel for half the year; visiting the most beautiful parts of the winter world, throwing yourself off the top of tracks, hitting 120 plus km/h (74 mph) and calling it work. Some days I just simply cannot believe this is my life.

 

The physiologist in the athlete

Having worked with athletes, I try to conduct myself in a way that I appreciated when working: filling in wellness and training data, minimising moaning, sleeping well, being honest about injury or illness. I remember what ‘athlete behaviours’ I should be striving to demonstrate and more to the point I know why they are important. I’ve spent enough time trying to get buy in from athletes and coaches to know how much more can be achieved when they comply. However, the emotion and enormity of what you’re trying to achieve can get to you; in my case, that is tightly linked with putting my physiology career on pause and the risk I took to follow the skeleton path. It can be a very testing environment and sometimes you just feel like your life is being determined by others or you’re not where you want to be in terms of making progress. In hindsight, these feelings are usually due to fatigue. When tired, you become less rational and the athlete behaviours can slip.

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Strength testing in the physiology lab

As the athlete, you’re not always involved in decision making and a lot goes on at a programme level that you don’t see. Our job is to put in the work, hit our goals and to grow as athletes and people. It is important to trust in the vision and direction of the performance director, coaches and support team. However, I sometimes find this difficult because I have a need to know why I do things. Having been part of athlete support teams, I am used to knowing the behind the scenes, so it was quite a big change to not always be a part of those conversations. If I am striving for a certain time on the push track or score on a physio test I ask why. Fortunately, as a more senior athlete I do now get to see more of what goes behind the training plans and goals. The team know my background so I quite often get to see a little more of the spreadsheet, as they know I am interested and will understand. This allows my inner spreadsheet geek to live on!

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Sprinting through a series of light gates is a way of measuring running speed

I don’t get to practise or apply exercise physiology in the way I used to. Yes, we use force plates and light gates, fill in wellness and training data, take part in special projects and so on, but when you’re the subject you’re not exposed to the same level of insight. What I am becoming though, is an expert of my body. How much sleep I need, what food I should eat, how I best warm up, what coaching cues help my performance, when I need more rest, what my peak power is, what a healthy body composition looks like for me. I am also further developing soft skills such as assertiveness, effective communication, team work and resilience. So, whilst I miss working as an exercise physiologist every day, I hope that this break will firstly, fulfil the desire to play the athlete and secondly grant me new skills and understanding from the athlete point of view that will be useful when I do return to work one day. In the meantime, I am giving skeleton my all and focusing on a huge goal: the 2022 Olympics in Beijing!

The Ultra Cycle Diaries – The Finish Line

by Daniel Brayson, King’s College London, @DrDanBrayson

Having never attempted anything like the Transcontinental Race before, my expectation ahead of the race was to complete it before the cut-off time, which was set at 15 days and 2 hours. In the very early stages of the race, I rode quite conservatively knowing that to finish within this time was critical for my sense of achievement. However, I very quickly realised I was capable of much more. I arrived at the first checkpoint in around 60th position, which surprised me. I then arrived at all the remaining checkpoints in higher positions than the previous one and was placed somewhere in the 30’s for the final checkpoint on the Transfagarasan highway in Romania.

The last hurdle

Approximately 1000 kilometres from the finish line in Meteora, I was in a good position to make a late charge for a top 30 position and I set about the task gamely. I rode through the remaining portion of Romania and a short section through Bulgaria into Serbia. Feeling hardened from the first 75% of the race I felt my performance improving rather than declining and set about three substantial climbs in northern Serbia with a certain amount of gusto and swagger. Temperatures were fierce, up into the 40°Cs, but I felt I had acclimatised to these by now and in my mind I was conquering these hills with no problems, better than any I had attempted previously at the height of the midday sun. Having capacity for only 1750 ml of water and a broken smartphone, I found myself rationing water as I couldn’t know when the next opportunity to resupply would arrive. I made up for it when I had the opportunity and guzzled litres at service stations but as it turns out, the damage had been done. Later that evening, when the sun had disappeared below the horizon and temperatures had dropped to the point it was “cool,” I started to suffer. I felt hot and restricted in my clothes despite the cool evening breeze; I became irritated by my clothes to the extent that I removed my jersey and rode shirtless for a while. After a little while longer, my feet felt hot and irritated too, so I took them out of my cleats and rode on top of those. Then suddenly my legs went completely: I’d hit a wall, pedalling felt like I was sitting on a ledge mixing cement with my feet, and I was overcome with delirium. I stopped at a service station and slept in a secluded area covered in pinecones for the night. I was so out of it I hadn’t noticed the pinecones at first, and stirred from sleep a few hours later to find myself cursing them wildly. At this point, I intended to crack on, but as I stood up I felt a wave of nausea overcome me, so I figured I needed more rest.

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In the morning, I ‘soft pedalled’ (rode slowly) for about 100 kilometres, at which point I came face to face with a steep hill at 1pm. Again, the temperature was up in the 40°Cs. With no obvious signs of shade on the sides of the road I looked around, feeling dejected. I had been riding next to a river and noticed locals frolicking in their bathers. I found a small quiet area and immersed myself, fully clothed, in a shallow part of the river and remained there in state of semi-consciousness for almost 4 hours. When the mid-afternoon sun was less fearsome I rode another 40 kilometres to the nearest town and holed-up in hotel for the next 8 hours. At this point, I could not stomach any solid food, and realised I was suffering at the hands of the extreme temperatures and heat exhaustion.

Lessons from the Transcontinental Race

At the time, I felt that I had not ridden at the right times of day in order to avoid the heat, and this point comes through as in my video diary. Now, as I reflect, I know that I couldn’t have ridden at night since I can’t suppress the urge to sleep then (remember response inhibition?) The logistics of trying to reverse my body clock in preparation for a race whilst performing a demanding vocation would be insurmountable. My feeling now is that I should have been better prepared to ride in the heat. Principally, I should have addressed two issues. Firstly acclimation: I should have trained for the heat. I didn’t, because being British I am not often enough exposed to extreme heat to actually appreciate the effects it has on human physiology and performance – and to believe these temperatures actually exist! However, training for heat has been shown to potentially benefit overall performance, not just performance in the heat, so if there is any chance of high environmental temperatures it is worth undertaking heat training regardless. Secondly, I should have allowed a greater carrying capacity for water and fluids. This was perhaps the biggest flaw in my preparation. At times I should definitely have been carrying at least 3 litres, if not more! I paid the price for this and by the time I had recovered I had to re-align my expectations back to finishing before the cut-off. So with the intention of managing my workload carefully, I gingerly clambered aboard my bike and set off for the finish line.

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The finish line

After a calamitous final section in which I suffered a terminal failure of my rear tyre, I walked the final 7 kilometres, in suffocating heat, and arrived at the finish line in Kalabaka, Greece, in a foul and dispirited mood. I was robbed of the glory of rolling across the finish line, triumphant and fulfilled. Nevertheless, I had finished and I had finished 12 hours before the cut-off. On the lack of glory at the finish my final thought as I left Kalabaka to return to the UK was, ‘there’s always next time’.

The Ultra Cycle Diaries – Nutrition

By Daniel Brayson, King’s College London, @DrDanBrayson

In cycling very long distances as fast as possible, ultra-endurance cyclists use an extraordinary amount of energy. Replenishing these energy stores is critical for racers to maintain performance and stay competitive. To achieve this, riders do not simply settle for 3 square meals per day, or even 3 big meals a day, which would simply not be enough! Instead, we eat more frequently, and because we do not want to stop too often, this means eating whilst riding: “grazing on the go,” as it is affectionately referred to amongst cyclists. This involves eating an array of convenient snacks ranging from the healthy – bananas, oranges and kiwi fuits – to the energy packed goodness of carbohydrate and fibre rich wholegrain bars, nuts for fat replenishment, all the way through to the downright despicable: chocolate bars, Peperami and lots of jelly sweets. Did I mention ice cream? There was a bit of that too. The overriding consensus amongst riders is that a calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from, and you take all you can get!

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Biting more than you can use

Although it is intuitive to think that you need to eat a lot more to compete in these races, there is a limit to how much energy a human can take on board. Take the example of carbohydrates. The limit to how much carbohydrate can enter the bloodstream is dictated by a clever transporter system between our gut and our circulation. The ‘problem’ with this system, from the point of view of an ultra-racer, is that it can only transfer approximately 60 grams of carbs per hour from the gut to the bloodstream, maybe up to 90 at a push. In an ultra event, racers are likely to use much more. On top of this, this transport relies on an adequate blood supply to the gut to deliver energy to the system and facilitate it’s function. However, when cycling most of our blood supply is directed to the muscles because they are using so much energy. This can make this transport system slower and less effective and may lead to “gastrointestinal distress” – tummy ache to you and me! This is a common problem for ultra-cyclists, but it is even more common in ultra-runners, probably because of there is more jumbling up and down in the tummy, which I think is the technical terminology…

Measuring the loss of energy stores

If the human body is in a state where it can’t take on as much energy as it uses, it is likely there will be a net loss of energy stores in the body; this has actually been shown in a couple of studies which examined ultra cyclists. However, the magnitude of this deficit is up for debate. One study showed that it could be as much as 8000 calories per day, whilst another derived that it was a more conservative 1500 calories. This discrepancy is likely due to the fact that these studies chose very different methods of measurement. To add to these studies I attempted to use yet another type of measurement to see if I could determine my ‘energy status’ during the Transcontinental Race. I opted for measuring circulating glucose (sugar) and lipids (fats) by pricking my finger and then using an everyday device that a diabetic might use to monitor their blood sugar. Simple.

Or perhaps not. I found that when I measured glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides, values were usually either the same as or higher than the resting values that I measured before the race, which goes against the hypothesis that I would be suffering from an energy deficit, and the data generated by previous studies. I can think of a number of mitigating circumstances. Firstly, I had devised a plan to take measurements pre- and post-meal. Yet, it quickly became obvious that I would rarely find myself in a pre- or post-meal state, because I ate so often. Timing of measurements was therefore erratic at best. Also, continually lancing my fingertips became a painful burden: my fingers were wounded and bruised for most of the time I was racing. Eventually, I decided it was too much of a hindrance, especially as my chances of finishing the race were already jeopardised by heat-induced illness. Heat also affected my appetite and ability to adequately digest: I was nearly re-acquainted with more than one meal towards the end of the race and spent the last two days eating nothing but ice-lollies.

In case you needed reminding, this was no walk in the park! Come back next week to find out if the ice-lollies got me over the line!


Make sure you follow the blog and subscribe to our Youtube Channel to keep up with the Ultra Cycle Diaries. Check back every Wednesday for a new blog and video!

The Ultra Cycle Diaries – Fatigue

By Daniel Brayson, King’s College London, @DrDanBrayson

Cycling 4000 kilometres as quickly as possible inevitably means that fatigue plays an important role, and those who manage and deal with it well are likely do best in endurance bike racing. Fatigue is the over-arching term to describe the inability of an individual subject to maintain a performance output over time; in the case of the Transcontinental Race, a very long time.

The reduction of the body’s energy stores is a key factor in the development of fatigue. Elite bike racing teams focus heavily on it to avoid what is affectionately known in cycling circles as ‘bonking’: feeling hypoglycaemic, with your legs turned to jelly, and mild dizziness. However, whilst fuelling is undoubtedly crucial, the Transcontinental Race provides the added challenge of being one long stage from start to finish: no daily finish lines, no support team and massage waiting at the end of every day. Therefore, developing a race strategy also includes deciding when and how much to rest and sleep, and route planning – both of which will impact on fatigue. Managing these components to optimise performance in the race is no mean feat especially when there are other factors to consider which are completely out of your control…

Fatigue graph

This plot of my power output over time shows an overall gradual decline in power during the race (red), which could be dure to a multitude of factors including the distance cycled and the increasing temperatures. ©Daniel Brayson

Response inhibition – the power of the mind

Due to the fiercely hot weather, a number of racers made the decision to cycle during the night and sleep during the day to avoid the hottest part of the day. This strategy didn’t work for me: I find it very difficult to inhibit my physiological urge to sleep at times that I would normally do so; this was no surprise, as I would famously fall asleep in nightclubs during my undergraduate years! Those who can resist these kinds of urges have what is known as a strong ‘response inhibition’: they are able to use the fortitude of their minds to ignore the desire of their bodies to sleep, and power through. They are likely to be successful endurance cyclists too, since they may also have a strong response inhibition to fatigue! The reason for this has been discovered recently: to a certain degree, fatigue is determined by the effort perceived by an individual rather than just the energy reserves available in their muscles (Marcora & Staiano, 2010). In fact, studies have shown that when a subject stops exercising because of exhaustion, there is still energy left in their muscles suggesting that it is the brain that is the limiting factor to performance!

Stress and physical performance

Remaining on the topic of the psychological components of fatigue, it is also now known that dealing with stressful situations can increase the effort perceived by an athlete and have a negative impact on endurance performance (Marcora et al., 2009). During the Transcontinental Race I encountered numerous stressful situations. For instance, I lost lots of my gear by just forgetting to re-pack it and leaving it in random places. I lost a pulse oximeter – a device to measure the oxygen saturation of my blood – before I got anywhere near a mountain, missing out on some nice data. My phone, on which I was heavily reliant for navigating and for performing an app-based psychological test called the Stroop test, broke because of the heat. I bought a new one and exchanged my sim card, only to realise 15 minutes down the road that I didn’t have it. I raced back to the shop – it wasn’t there. Retracing my steps, I could no longer determine if I was sweating through physical effort or panic! I finally found my brand new phone, just peeking out amongst the packaging in which it originally came: I had thrown it in the bin!!! Fatigue begets fatigue begets fatigue…


Make sure you follow the blog and subscribe to our Youtube Channel to keep up with the Ultra Cycle Diaries. Check back every Wednesday for a new blog and video!

References

Marcora SM & Staiano W. (2010). The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle? Eur J Appl Physiol 109, 763-770.

Marcora SM, Staiano W & Manning V. (2009). Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985) 106, 857-864.