Many of us have been there, felt that: You just woke up from your usual eight hours of sleep, slipped on your workout clothes, laced up your shoes, and yet, you’re simply not raring to go. Instead your gas tank seems to hit “E” for a reason you can’t quite pinpoint. That feeling? It’s called fatigue.

Because this sensation has so many potential causes and symptoms, it’s often tough to tease out what kind of fatigue you’re experiencing. But once you do figure it out, you’re able to tackle roadblocks head on and get back up to speed ASAP.

To get you on the level of fighting fatigue with fury, let’s learn how to differentiate if it’s your mind or your muscles that feel off, and the best ways to tackle extreme tiredness.

What Fatigue Really Means

By medical definition, general fatigue is a condition that makes you extremely tired, often to the point where you can’t function. If you can’t wake up without hitting snooze, find typical daily tasks difficult to accomplish, and if your days feel longer and tougher to conquer, it’s likely fatigue that’s ailing you.

This is different from being tired, particularly from lack of sleep. When you’re tired, you’ll often be able to bounce back to full strength and speed after a good night of shut-eye. With more extreme fatigue, recovery often involves a multi-pronged approach, and different forms of fatigue require different remedies.

People may experience various aspects of fatigue including muscular fatigue, mental fatigue, emotional fatigue, fatigue due to inadequate nutrition, or fatigue due to a lack of sleep quality or quantity. When we put our bodies and brains through the paces, we put more demands on ourselves either physically, mentally, or both.

So as we’re training for a race or running recreationally, or even when we’re cranking out challenging brain-based tasks, cells can become “overloaded” by the physical and mental stress. To adapt to the forces of stress and fatigue, our bodies often experience temporary reductions in performance. Fatigue may indicate that our body is in need of more recovery or downtime between training sessions. This can manifest as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), feeling “fuzzy,” lacking motivation, and more.

How to Differentiate Between Mental Fatigue and Muscle Fatigue

If you frequently feel low in energy, try asking yourself: Is your body able to recover between workouts? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you giving your body enough fuel? Is your training program too strenuous?

Differentiating between cognitive, muscle, and general body fatigue can be challenging due to overlapping symptoms. However, some guidelines will help you tell them apart:

Mental Fatigue

Cognitive fatigue, or mental fatigue, is a psychobiological state that happens when your brain gets overworked. Prolonged periods of cognitive activity, such as studying, problem-solving, or intense concentration can cause mental fatigue, as can stress, certain medical conditions, or lack of high-quality sleep. Your ability to refocus your mind on something other than the fact that you are just exhausted may seem close to impossible.

Symptoms include:

  • Feeling mentally drained
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Impaired memory
  • Reduced problem-solving abilities
  • Feeling apathetic to activity or thoughts
  • Increased errors
  • Slower reaction times
  • Difficulty self-regulating emotions
  • Withdrawal
  • Changes in appetite and/or mood

The most consistent way we see mental fatigue present physically in research: An increased rate of perceived exertion (RPE) during the same physical output. That means your 9-minute mile pace that usually feels like a breeze could render you feeling totally tapped out—or, at least, will feel a lot more challenging than if your brain wasn’t feeling quite so taxed.

A dead giveaway that you need to focus on your mental state, according to science: You lack focus or discipline, or notice substantial decreases in motivation or enthusiasm for tasks you once found enjoyable.

How To Overcome Mental Fatigue:

The best way to manage mental fatigue is to take a proactive approach to minimize the mental fatigue at the source. This means taking short hourly breaks during mentally-taxing projects, limiting out-of-office work time, and spacing out brain-intensive tasks when possible.

1. Limit social media use

Social media use prior to exercise has been shown to impair performance, so avoid it an hour before your workout and space out use throughout the day.

2. Find a mind-focused practice

Mindfulness and meditation techniques can help alleviate mental fatigue by promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and improving mental clarity. This helps to focus attention on the present moment, letting go of distracting thoughts. Just 13 minutes per day of meditating for eight weeks straight has been shown to boost mood, increase ability to regulate emotions, improve attention, and decrease anxiety levels, according to research.

3. Fuel wisely

Poor food choices, alcohol, and not enough water can certainly play a role in how fatigued we feel during the day, regardless of our training or exercise program or mental challenges.

While this is true for mental and physical fatigue, the mental link appears to be related to our gut microbiome and the conversation that occurs all day, every day, between our intestines and our minds (a.k.a. the gut-brain axis). To feed the good gut bacteria and your energy levels, aim for a balanced mix of macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat), as well as enough fiber. Women should stick to one alcoholic drink per day, max, and men should sip on two or fewer.

4. Get a boost by way of caffeine

Research indicates that downing some coffee can help to mitigate the effects of mental fatigue on performance. You just want to steer clear of caffeine within six hours of bedtime, at least one study suggests, or it can mess with your sleep.

5. Pepper in some positive self-talk

It might sound woo-woo to have a go-to mantra or a flip on your optimistic switch, but science proves that self-talk is more important than you think. If you’re feeling mentally drained during your workout, find something to focus on and convince yourself that you are enjoying the process and going to succeed. Establishing a more uplifting mental conversation on the run might include identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with motivation phrases, like “you got this” or “you are strong.”

6. Set yourself up for sleep success

Sleep is very individual, so play around with what environment and pre-bed rituals work for you – a slow yoga flow, avoiding TV and screens close to bedtime, and listening to a soothing instrumental playlist to wind down. Above all, the goal is to establish a regular sleep routine, aiming for eight hours of quality sleep each night.

Muscle Fatigue

Muscle or general body fatigue involves feelings of tiredness or exhaustion that are correlated with either the depletion of glycogen stores or the build-up of metabolic waste products from intense physical activity, repetitive muscle contractions, or sustained muscle exertion. Inadequate rest or sleep, emotional stress, very hot temperatures, certain medications, and some medical conditions can contribute to this type of fatigue.

Scientists usually define this as a “difficulty to initiate or sustain muscle activities” at your normal levels. Physical fatigue usually has little to no impact on cognitive alertness.

Symptoms include:

  • Weakness
  • Feeling heavy in legs or feet
  • Decreased muscle performance (power, coordination, and/or endurance)
  • Feelings of stiffness and/or soreness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Diminished performance
  • Possible cramping, trembling, or twitching of the muscles
  • Changes in appetite and/or mood

How To Overcome Muscle Fatigue

To try to prevent or reduce body fatigue in the first place, aim for a consistent exercise schedule with rest days in the mix.

Usually, 24 to 48 hours per week of active rest is ideal to support recovery. On these days, incorporate some form of less-intense movement that uses your joints and muscles in different ways, such as yoga, walking, or swimming. Regular physical activity helps reduce body fatigue and boost energy levels. Exercise improves circulation, releases endorphins, and enhances overall fitness and stamina. The catch is finding the right balance of exercise and rest.

Beyond that, try these pro tips to bounce back from physical fatigue:

1. Keep calm and snack on

If you’re experiencing some mild muscle fatigue during a race (which might feel like you’re running out of gas while your brain and heart are rearing to forge ahead), give your body a boost with some easy-to-digest carbohydrates or a sports drink.

2. Take five for a body scan

After your workouts or before bed, carve out five minutes to perform a body scan to see where you might be having any physical sensations, like tightness, soreness, or pain. This can help you customize your active recovery or stretching routine to focus on TLC for that area in particular. If it’s intense, you may want to tweak your training schedule accordingly, say, by adjusting your perceived exertion from a 7 out of 10 to a 5 out of 10. If you think you might be injured, consult with your doctor.

3. Treat your muscles

Foam rolling, massage, mobility exercises, stretching, and yoga can help support recovery from intense training and reduce DOMS symptoms.

4. Take a bath

Ice baths may reduce acute inflammation, improve perceived recovery, and reduce muscle soreness – Stick to 10 to 15 minutes or less.

5. Slip on compression gear

For many runners, the main source of aches comes down to the legs. Postworkout, consider wearing a pair of compression socks to promote blood flow, and in turn, support recovery. These have largely inconclusive evidence regarding performance benefits, but generally improve perceived fatigue and soreness and enhance how a recovering individual feels.

6. Integrate stress-management techniques

Chronic stress can contribute to increased body fatigue. Explore relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation. These practices can help reduce muscle tension, lower stress hormone levels, and promote a sense of calm.

7. Eat and drink to support recovery

Proper nutrition and hydration combat body fatigue. Ensure you consume a balanced diet rich in whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugary foods, and processed snacks that can lead to energy crashes.

8. Train for fatigue resistance

By incorporating slow, steady training at zone 2 efforts, high-intensity interval training, and lower-body strength training into your training plans, you help to build a body that can perform for longer without reaching exhaustion.

How to Prevent All Forms of Fatigue

Regardless of where the fatigue originated, it’s important to build rest and recovery into your training plans and between cognitive tasks so that you can recharge and allow your body and mind to recover and perform at their peak.

Prioritizing sleep, breaks, relaxation and positive thinking can help you overcome fatigue. These aren’t one-and-done tasks, though. Just like you need to train early and often to be ready to set a personal best time, you need to sprinkle in these fatigue-fighters throughout the week to bounce back from tough workouts and draining mental tasks.

It can be easy to get lured into focusing on the marginal gains or “one-percenters” that are advertised to improve performance, such as specific gear or electrolyte powders. Instead, focus on getting the basics right—scoring seven to nine hours of sleep, consuming a well-balanced diet and ample hydration, and preparing with a training program based on scientific principles and individualized for your goals—is what will really move the needle and keep you strong for the long haul, without fatigue (muscle or mental!) getting in your way.

Train Hard, Fight Easy!

























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