6 ways to stop your mental energy being drained

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After dealing with your unrelenting workload, demanding boss, erratic computer, incessant emails, texts and the other stresses of your day, you may feel too tired to run by the time 5:30pm rolls around.

Feeling fatigued may seem odd if you’ve been parked in a chair for eight hours. But while you may not have physically exerted yourself, you are low on mental energy and that can make you feel tired, says Dr Daniel Evans, a postdoctoral fellow in the Brown Clinical Psychology Training Program in the US. When your brain has to make hundreds of micro-decisions all day, it can experience ‘decision fatigue’. The more choices you make, the more drained your brain becomes, which can cause you to lose your grip on good judgment as the hours tick by.

Psychologists have been studying the phenomenon of decision fatigue for almost 30 years. The theory is that each of us has a finite store of mental energy and, therefore, willpower. This explains why you’ll find yourself surfing Facebook after a run instead of foam-rolling. But with the following strategies you’ll be able to keep good training habits on track, even on mentally exhausting days.

1/ Start your day right

One good decision can lead to another. Healthy habits such as exercising in the morning and eating a balanced breakfast can have a beneficial knock-on effect, leading you to make better choices for the rest of the day. Evans says willpower is similar to a muscle in that the more it’s worked, the stronger it becomes. Even if you can’t run in the morning, start your day with a positive behaviour, such as doing 10 minutes of yoga or eating a healthy breakfast. Front-loading your day with actions that support your training will make it less likely you’ll skip a run later.

READ: 5 perfect pre-run breakfasts

2/ Streamline decisions

You can’t control what you’ll face at work, and life emergencies can always pop up out of nowhere. However, you can reduce the number of decisions you have to take at busy times by planning your workouts and preparing your meals and snacks in advance. ‘When I was training for a half Ironman, I sat down and planned out all my workouts so I never had to think about them when I was tired,’ says Dr Stephen Graef, a sports psychologist at Ohio State University in the US. ‘Try to eliminate the hassle of having to figure out which workout, which time, which route. Every single one of those decisions burns brain fuel.’

And be aware that tough workouts take mental fortitude, as well as physical effort. When you come back from a long run or a high-intensity speedwork session, your resolve may not be at its highest. So rather than asking your brain to decide between the veggies in the fridge and the biscuits in the tin, ‘pre-decide’ by preparing a healthy post-run snack before you head out.

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3/ Race in a group

It takes significant mental energy to properly pace yourself in a race. Letting someone else set the pace for you – be it a pace group or a friend you regularly run with – could help you conserve mental energy so you’ll feel less physically drained as the race progresses. ‘In principle, running with a group is beneficial because the decision-making process becomes much simpler: all you have to do is follow the runner ahead,’ says Andrew Renfree, a researcher at the Institute of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Worcester. Just be sure that your pacer is a good match for your speed and race goals.

READ: Marathon pacing and pack running

4/ Sweeten the deal

When your body begs for a break, recognise that it could be your brain trying to slow you down. The mental fatigue of running hard can make you feel that you can’t go on, even though you still have physical energy in the form of unused glycogen in your muscles. However, a hit of sugar can fool your brain. Evans says just tasting something sweet can reset the brain’s ability to make good decisions. One study found that simply swishing a glucose solution, such as Lucozade, around your mouth can help you feel more energised and get you back on track. ‘There are sensors in our mouths that sense glucose, which can trick the brain into thinking it’s getting more fuel,’ says Evans. Of course, if you’re racing a long distance, you’ll need to replenish your glycogen sources anyway, so feel free to sip, not just swish.

READ: Sports drinks vs energy gels

5/ Use a power playlist

Good decision-making declines as your mental energy decreases, which explains why grabbing a cheeky beer from a spectator at mile three doesn’t present the same temptation that it does at mile 23, when body and mind are struggling. Graef says one great way to stave off a mistake late in a race is to use music. Even if you don’t want to run with it for your entire race, having music available for the last few miles, when your willpower is likely to dip, can boost your mood, help you tune out distractions and give you the chance to refocus on your performance.

READ: How music tempo can affect your running pace and recovery

6/ Take five

Evans says taking time to mentally reboot can help you find motivation to run after a draining day. Research supports the benefits of a quick meditation session or power nap. Just as effective is spending a few minutes doing something that elicits a positive emotion. Google ‘drunk cat playing the banjo’, anyone?

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