The mental strength of elite cyclists

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Professional cyclists were found in a University of Kent study to have better willpower and a greater resistance to mental fatigue than recreational cyclists.

As Chris Froome celebrates his third Tour de France victory, research shows that such athletes have superior ability to resist mental fatigue, says research from Professor Samuele Marcora, director of research in the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences.

For the study, Marcora and Australian colleagues compared the performance of 11 professional cyclists and nine recreational cyclists in various tests. As expected, the professional cyclists outperformed the recreational cyclists in a simulated time trial in the laboratory. The new finding was that while the recreational cyclists slowed down after performing a computerised cognitive task to induce mental fatigue, the professional cyclists’ time trial performance was not affected.

In addition, the professional cyclists performed better than the recreational cyclists in the computerised cognitive task which measure ‘inhibitory control’ or willpower. This is not surprising as the ability to suffer is a major factor in the sport of cycling.

Marcora, says that the two effects go hand in hand, because becoming resistant to mental fatigue should bolster willpower during the latter stages of a competition such as the Tour de France.

Although largely hereditary, he speculates that superior willpower and resistance to mental fatigue may be trained through hard physical training and the demanding lifestyle of elite endurance athletes.

Marcora is also developing, in collaboration with the UK’s Ministry of Defence, a new training method (Brain Endurance Training) to boost resistance to mental fatigue and endurance performance even further.

Purpose: Given the important role of the brain in regulating endurance performance, this comparative study sought to determine whether professional road cyclists have superior inhibitory control and resistance to mental fatigue compared to recreational road cyclists.
Methods: After preliminary testing and familiarization, eleven professional and nine recreational road cyclists visited the lab on two occasions to complete a modified incongruent colour-word Stroop task (a cognitive task requiring inhibitory control) for 30 min (mental exertion condition), or an easy cognitive task for 10 min (control condition) in a randomized, counterbalanced cross-over order. After each cognitive task, participants completed a 20-min time trial on a cycle ergometer. During the time trial, heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and rating of perceived exertion (RPE) were recorded.
Results: The professional cyclists completed more correct responses during the Stroop task than the recreational cyclists (705±68 vs 576±74, p = 0.001). During the time trial, the recreational cyclists produced a lower mean power output in the mental exertion condition compared to the control condition (216±33 vs 226±25 W, p = 0.014). There was no difference between conditions for the professional cyclists (323±42 vs 326±35 W, p = 0.502). Heart rate, blood lactate concentration, and RPE were not significantly different between the mental exertion and control conditions in both groups.
Conclusion: The professional cyclists exhibited superior performance during the Stroop task which is indicative of stronger inhibitory control than the recreational cyclists. The professional cyclists also displayed a greater resistance to the negative effects of mental fatigue as demonstrated by no significant differences in perception of effort and time trial performance between the mental exertion and control conditions. These findings suggest that inhibitory control and resistance to mental fatigue may contribute to successful road cycling performance. These psychobiological characteristics may be either genetic and/or developed through the training and lifestyle of professional road cyclists.

Kristy Martin, Walter Staiano, Paolo Menaspà, Tom Hennessey, Samuele Marcora, Richard Keegan, Kevin G Thompson, David Martin, Shona Halson, Ben Rattray

University of Kent material
PLOS One abstract

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