I, like many, am in awe of Mark Beaumont who recently cycled around the world in 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes, covering an average of 230 miles a day. How on earth did he keep going? What lessons are there for us mere mortals?
Have you ever wondered why healthy people like Mark Beaumont who exercise an incredible amount never seem exercise themselves to death? I have. Sure, people have heart attacks and the like, but that’s generally because a pre-existing condition was exacerbated by the exercise, rather than the exercise alone. Fatigue is one of those concepts we all use but no-one really fully understands. Visit your Doctor complaining of feeling tired and s/he will look for causes of the fatigue rather than fatigue itself. To this day, scientists are still grappling with trying to identify the process in the mind and the body that control the sense of fatigue. What is clear is that it is complex. For example, common sense tells us the longer you work on a task the more mentally fatigued you will get. Not so. You can experience being mentally fatigued after a very short time whilst if the reward is great enough, you can keep going for a long time, as Mark Beaumont did.
So what does stop us from pushing ourselves to the point of destruction? What stopped Mark Beaumont simply riding himself into the ground? It turns out that as the intensity increases, eventually, the perception of effort is what stops us rather than our pounding heart or tired legs. In other words your brain will stop you long before your heart or legs give out because of the perception of the pain. Your ability to keep going depends on your perception of effort and how motivated you are. Many people when about to give up whilst running a marathon describe how somebody said something, or cheered and it was enough to help them keep going just when they were thinking of stopping. The cries of encouragement re-motivated them to keep going when they thought they were finished. Perhaps Mark Beaumont’s secret is not just being incredibly fit, but in being hugely driven and motivated to succeed. The lesson would seem to be to make sure your motivation is sufficiently strong to keep you going. The bigger the challenge, the stronger the motivation you will need.
Me, after 58 hours of continuous cycling (Photo Joolze Dymond)
What the research shows us is that fatigue is not a steady decline to ceasing activity, but can be overturned if the motivation is right. Imagine coming home from a hard exercise class. Your legs hurt and you can barely move. If someone said, run 5km and I will give you £1, you would probably switch the kettle on, politely decline and make some tea. But if they offered you £1,000,000, you might find yourself slipping on your trainers and heading back out the door. The motivation has changed because the reward now makes it worthwhile.
Some things however seem to help us feel more tired more quickly. They include tasks that are very repetitive, fast and continuous. For example, standing on a production line completing a sorting task. Similarly, and unsurprisingly you are more likely to get tired if the work is very intense requiring a lot of effort. But take a short rest, or perhaps a change in task for a while and you will be able to return to the original task re-energised. In an interview with the online cycling organisation ‘Global Cycling Network’ Mark described how he rode from 4am until 8am, took a short rest and then was able to face the rest of the day. That short rest was enough to enable him to regain his focus and drive. The lesson would seem to be, when you are feeling like you can’t go on, take a short break, do something different, come back and have another go.
So far, the discussion has been about how to keep going in spite of the fatigue experienced. Fatigue serves a really useful purpose. It is the body’s way of saying ‘stop!’, ‘enough!’ it’s time to take a break. In healthy people, fatigue ensures we stop to recover and regenerate. It is not, as it is often portrayed, an illness, or something to fix. That feeling of sleepiness when driving that has us pulling over to have 40 winks, is a very effective mechanism to ensure we take the break we need to have the focus required to drive safely. We ignore it at our peril. The body is so effective that if tired enough, it will simply send you into sleep, no matter how much coffee you have drunk. Even Mark Beaumont slept for a few hours each night.
So if you too have your sights on a significant challenge like Mark Beaumont did, make sure you really know why you are doing it and what you hope to get from it. That understanding may be just what you need to get you through those dark moments when fatigue is haunting you. And if you do feel like you can’t go on, rather than give up, perhaps take a 5 minute break and then have another go, it may just be enough to get you out of that tough place. But above all, if you really cannot go on – stop! There’s a reason – you need a rest.
Dominic Irvine © 2017