Or was it in a race over the weekend? The event may have started out fine, but then it became harder and harder to get those legs working. Your heart rate was through the roof, your lungs just couldn’t seem to get enough air into them. Then that entire-body fatigue started to set in, raising a bunch of doubts and questions about whether you’re cut out for this. The fatigue built up to a point where you just couldn’t continue anymore.

Exercise physiology researchers refer to this as exhaustion, and it’s measured as Time To Exhaustion (TTE) in fitness tests. It’s a phenomenon we know too well – when our legs fail us. It’s that point you reach that you just cannot, no matter what you do, push beyond and you end up quitting. Task failure, that’s another technical term for it.

Interestingly, there is a new trend in the exercise research realm that is bringing into question the reasons we commonly ascribe to why we reach exhaustion and task failure. Until now we have believed that the reason why task failure happens is because of some physical failure. For example, we run out of glycogen reserves to fuel the muscles – the dreaded bonk. Or we’re just pushing ourselves beyond what our muscles are capable of handling – not enough FTP. Finally, the most common reason is the ‘lactic burn’ that escalates to a point we just can’t handle anymore, not even 1 second more.

What does this have to do with a mental game? That burn you experience is most definitely a physical thing, but it is also just as mental. Quitting because of the burn is more task disengagement than failure. You are consciously or subconsciously choosing to end the task. It’s not your legs that have failed, unless of course you’ve got a cramp or torn a muscle, but that your mind has disengaged. You have reached a point of pain you are not able to or willing to endure any further. Think of it as a pain threshold, a point of suffering that you are willing to get to and endure, but no more than that. This is your psychological limit, how determined, motivated and willing you are to suffer in pursuit of your training or racing goals.

By assuming that our legs fail us, we have no say over where our limit of exhaustion actually is. By seeing it as a form of task engagement, we can then ask ourselves how much longer can we endure it for and find ways of pushing our limits further. That limit of exhaustion is quite elastic in nature, it’s not a fixed thing. It comes down to how much you can suffer and where your ‘sufferability’ reserves are?

In practical terms, for a sprinter, it’s the difference in being willing to hang on to a max effort sprint for just a few more seconds at the line. For an endurance rider, it’s being able to sit in that slow poison zone for just a few more minutes to ride a competitor off your wheel.

The first step in improving your sufferability is realizing that it can be trained and not being bogged down by the assumption that your time to exhaustion limit is unchangeable. The second thing you want to do is prime yourself by anticipating that you’ll be experiencing the hurt locker for longer than ever before in your upcoming workout or race. Thirdly, spend more time in that hurt locker to get more familiar with it. The longer you spend near that point of failure the more you will learn about yourself and what it will take to endure for just that little bit longer. Finally, you’ll need to employ some nifty mental focus techniques like motivational self-talk, visualization and mental imagery to unlock the potential your brain has for redefining your limits.

Physical limits do indeed exist, but what we’ve got to get our head around (pun intended) is how to shift our willingness to endure fatigue on the bike. Our willingness to push that point of exhaustion out just that little bit further may be the difference between achieving our goals, or quitting again. So, the next time you feel that burn and are tempted to soft-pedal, tell yourself that this is an opportunity to redefine your limits, keep pushing for longer than you have before.


About the author: Aiden Choles

Aiden suffers from an Ultra MTB race affliction and has a background in psychology, which means he lies on his own couch, asking himself how it feels. He runs MentalWorks and is passionate about helping athletes overcome their mental demons and redefine what they thought was impossible on the bike.