athletes · training

Why athletics and academics might not go so well together after all

“Tire your brain and your body may follow, a remarkable new study of mental fatigue finds. Strenuous mental exertion may lessen endurance and lead to shortened workouts, even if, in strict physiological terms, your body still has plenty of energy reserves.

Scientists have long been intrigued by the idea that physical exertion affects our ability to think, with most studies finding that short bouts of exercise typically improve cognition. Prolonged and exhausting physical exercise, on the other hand, may leave practitioners too worn out to think clearly, at least for a short period of time.

But the inverse possibility — that too much thinking might impair physical performance — has received far less attention. So scientists from the University of Kent in England and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, known as INSERM, joined forces to investigate the matter. For a study published online in May in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, they decided to tire volunteers’ brains with a mentally demanding computer word game and see how well their bodies would perform afterward.”

The result wasn’t good: “As it turned out, mental fatigue significantly affected the men’s endurance. They tired about 13 percent faster after the computer test than after watching “Earth.” They also reported that the workout felt far more taxing.”

That’s from How Intense Study May Harm Our Workouts by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times.

And it mirrors a concern raised by some academics about the difficulty they have combining thinking, researching, and writing with athletic training. Indeed, a doctoral student sent us the link to Reynolds’ column and asked us to blog about our answers. She reports having a really hard time switching gears from academic work to athletic training.

I’m not sure I have much helpful to add. I will say I much prefer intense exercise in the early morning. I’m a fidgety person and being physically tired actually allows me to focus in on my academic work. My preferred writing state is post bike workout, physically exhausted and mentally alert.

I’ve written before about the very high intelligence of elite athletes. But it may be that they are putting their big brains to work in service of their athletic goals. Likely they are not combining study with training.

These days I do rowing and Aikido in the evening and they are much more about skill acquisition for me at this stage. That is, they are technically rather than physically exhausting. After I flop in the hot tub and maybe play cards but I’m not up for anything intellectually challenging. (Indeed, I often blame my lousy performance in cards on the workout before hand.)

But you dear readers, what do you do? Lots of academics with pretty demanding training schedules read our blog, I know. Can you help out the PhD student who wrote in? Do you experience this problem? What’s your advice?

My advice: Don’t try this!

From the Book Spy, Reading While Riding: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


8 thoughts on “Why athletics and academics might not go so well together after all

  1. I definitely agree with the research. When I try to workout right after work I don’t get far. If I wait a few hours I have lots more endurance. My work is not incredibly mentally challenging, but it is not physical and my runs are only about 5km, but I do notice a difference in my ability to push myself.

  2. Hey Sam,
    I’ve just blended a new cycle training regimen with the start of term, and I’m finding it far more challenging than I would have imagined. Even though the training isn’t particularly strenuous (I’m currently under instructions to work at keeping my heart rate lower, even on hill climbs), and even though my big weekly ride is on Sundays, I’m having a hard time finding the energy to motivate myself for the workouts. I’m exhausted from the week, there’s a lot more on my plate these days at work, and I think a lot about the advice my trainer gave me on this front in August: a hard week at work will always make for serious fatigue during workouts, even if you think you’re totally ready and up for it. Her anecdotal evidence from clients bears out the findings from this study, for sure.

  3. When I was training full time for competitive badminton in my first few undergrad years, I’d have to try to finish my studying before the hard training days; and on days when I had long class schedules, I’d put training sessions first (early in the morning). I figured that I could perform well enough in classes tired from training, but I couldn’t perform well enough in training tired from classes. Oh yeah, I had very little social life because of this!

  4. I’m the hapless doctoral student who wrote in. One, I should mention, who loves working out. However, I was finding during the last part of dissertation writing I utterly failed to break free from writing to make time for fitness. Whenever it was time to stop writing and hit the gym, I railed against the notion. Even though I’d be mentally drained, being faced with this choice made staying in to write that much more appealing.

    Meanwhile, if there’s one thing you learn as an academic, it’s to exploit those times when you actually want to write. The upshot was that although I frequently worked late into the night, my gym habit withered away to dust. It’s almost as if the very unappealing prospect of the gym itself helped to make staying in to work on the diss that much more enticing.

  5. The only way I finished my dissertation in the time I did was to have a strict “training” regimen — not that I was training for anything, except my own health. On non-campus days (most, for me), I’d wake early (like 5 am early), be writing by 5:30, work until 8, have (another) breakfast with partner, write until 12:30, lunch, write until 2:30. The habit was what was important; I did this without thinking, so it was easy, once it was established. Then I would run or do yoga and other such things until 5:30. Of course, I did not have a child then … and it is a whole different rhythm now.

  6. I am not an academic but rather a lawyer. I do, however, work on quite complicated matters which often hurt my brain. Hurting my brain never stops me from exercising, although I now wonder whether I might be mentally exhausted on the days that my performance just sucks. I think that my busy schedule assists me in being able to work out regularly, because it is just that – a schedule. I do not have the luxury to work when I feel like working, or to take advantage of the desire to work or write when it comes my way. I think this actually helps, as opposed to hurts, in terms of the desire to exercise, as I do not have to worry about procrastinating, as I simply have no time to procrastinate. When I was a student, however, I worked very hard sometimes, but I also procrastinated alot. Why? Because I could. 🙂

  7. I don’t know that exercising or strenuous mental activity necessarily tired me out while I was in grad school (not to say that I wasn’t mentally exhausted all the time–I was), but I definitely didn’t exercise as much then as I did after graduating. (I passed my Master’s exams in June 2013 and graduated in August, BTW, so this wasn’t very long ago.) Mostly for me it was an issue of time management–do I go out for a jog or do I read that book for tomorrow’s class? Do I hit the gym for a little while or grade my students’ exams that were supposed to have been handed back last week? Of course, I should have just forced myself to schedule even a little bit of time. But I got lazy and time management was one of my weak spots through grad school. Consequently, I gained about 25 pounds and was in terrible shape by the end of it. My diet was also terrible, since I didn’t have the time or money to make real food. (I ate a LOT of frozen dinners.) I may not have studied nutrition, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that a bad diet is not going to help your workouts. I tried to do little things like walking more, but in the end it just frustrated me more than helped, because it now took an hour to get to work/class instead of the 15 minutes it took when I drove to campus, and like I said, there were a dozen other things I could have done with that time. So that’s why I rarely exercised in grad school.

  8. It is very much sounding to me that the only reason that “academics and athletics might not go so well together” is because budding academics and perhaps even some seasoned academics have never been taught, have never taught themselves, and/or have never been forced to learn time-management skills. Why? Because some of these people can survive and perhaps even succeed to some degree without such skills, being more of the intermittent “brain-storming” type, with a schedule and lifestyle which does not make time-management a daily necessity. All of us to some degree get away with what we can, and we often justify it by romanticizing the type of person we are: “Oh, I’m of the brain-storming variety, which is similar to an artist in some ways – for me, well, I get motivated when the lightning strikes! That’s just the way I am, I guess.” We all romanticize and deceive ourselves to some degree, in some ways, and we all usually know deep down that we are doing so (and that we are confusedly mixing lies with the truth when we do so), but that doesn’t stop alot of us from doing it – and sometimes, from doing it alot.

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