Charles Allen: Why can you find the energy for that final sprint when you’re feeling tired?

How tired do those legs really feel? Picture: Archant

How tired do those legs really feel? Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Head of Physical Performance at Walk to Run discusses how fatigue can be just a state of mind...

I've watched many 10,000m races in my time and one thing that's always interested me is the way that the result, so often, comes down to what happens in those last few metres.

We see athletes that, on the surface, look like they're doing 'just enough' to hold their finish. While others seem able to simply ignore 'the burn' as lactic acid builds and go on to create almost amazing finishes over such a long race.

So why are there such variances? Is it all to do with physiological differences and levels of muscle fatigue?

MORE: Love running? Join the Run Anglia Facebook group hereResearch suggests the answer is not that straight forward. In fact, it suggests that it is the athlete's ability to accept and deal with the emotional stress that accompanies muscle fatigue that makes the difference rather than the muscle fatigue itself. Fatigue is a 'state' and some athletes deal with it better than others.

Take most professional 10,000m races. The last 1k is usually the fastest and this, in a way, demonstrates the point. If muscle fatigue was the only driver in performance, then it would not make logical sense for a runner to perform their fastest 1k at the end of a race when the muscle is not in the best condition. Performance is lost when fatigue becomes emotionally unbearable for the athlete.

MORE: The importance of flexibility in runnersIt's important to acknowledge that when we take our muscles to a level where fatigue tolerance is tested, the risk of injury increases and needs to be carefully managed. And to remember that we're talking about pushing on through fatigue and the burn of lactic acid. Not pain or injury.

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So, what does this mean for non-professional athletes? Well, for all of us, being in tune with our bodies enough so that we can manage our emotional state and maintain performance when fatigue sets in is what can often set us apart from another athlete. Be that in a national event or our local 5k.

Remember when many of you started running? Remember the battle you had when first trying to master your breathing technique? Remember how you pushed on even when it was uncomfortable? Think of dealing with fatigue and playing the lactic acid game in much the same way.

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If you want to learn more about this and how you can apply the science to your own practice, get in touch at We can help you explore and apply the learning in a way that's right for you.

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