The mind not the muscles regulate fatigue

On the subject of experts and the light-hearted claim, “Trust me, I’m a doctor”, someone who is an expert in exercise science, before he became famous for his foray into nutrition, and happens to be a medical doctor, is Professor Tim Noakes. I was inspired by a talk given by Noakes claiming that the mind, not the muscles, governs fatigue. “The symptoms are utterly, completely illusory. They are generated by the brain and they have nothing to do with the state of the body at that time” (Noakes, 2016). He based the talk on research that indicated the brain as governor of fatigue, even though muscles were the final arbitrator.

The Internet site, UCT Open Content, comments on this aspect of Noakes’ research as follows, “In the past Professor Tim Noakes was convinced that physiology could explain performance. After 38 years of studying the human body, he now believes that the mind and the role of self-belief are crucial factors in human athletic feats” (Noakes, African Health, 2011).

My understanding is that the signal one receives from the brain informing us we are fatigued, may be misleading because it’s based on a mental estimation of reserves. I feel this signal can be likened to the one from a motor vehicle’s fuel gauge. A warning light comes on indicating that the fuel level is on reserve, but it’s not empty. In the same way, we receive a warning signal that we are tired and tend to interpret it as a sign our energy is depleted. Consequently, we may give up too early. I fully appreciate that a vehicle cannot, and you cannot, operate on nothing.  However, in my experience I have seen a fair amount of people create a competitive advantage by operating on reserve and some even seem to perform on metaphoric fuel vapours.

Before hearing about Noakes’ research on fatigue, I had reviewed a wealth of literature on misleading mental signals and their roles in limiting aspects of performance. By extension, I believed that Noakes’ research could apply to these signals as well. Significantly, it occurred to me that many of us could experience better outcomes in our lives if we interpreted other communication with greater accuracy. For example: if in negotiations, we maintained our bargaining position a little longer or, if in relationships, we maintained our composure a little longer, the outcomes might be more favourable than initially anticipated. We may also become more successful financially if we interpreted signals of fatigue with greater accuracy.


Neurological baggage from our evolutionary past

It seems that these signals often have their origins in acquired, but unconscious beliefs. These beliefs appear to stem from our genes. Astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, calls this neurological baggage from our evolutionary past. Through our genes, we may inherit safety reserves that are hard-wired into our brains to keep us out of harm’s way. However, it seems that these reserves go beyond the call of duty; they also strongly regulate our ability to take risks and manage pressure.

Secondly, we seem to inherit limiting beliefs from the environment in which we were socialised. We acquire a strong and pervasive sense of limitations set by cultural conservatism, social norms, taboos, as well as the expectations and behaviour of family, peers, powerful role models and mentors. These beliefs are then reinforced by our habitual behaviour, and that of the people around us, perpetuating a cycle in which these limitations are naturalised. In short, one of the ways to become mentally tough is to learn to become aware of these signals and, when necessary, have the awareness and will power to override them.


Dr Steve Harris. Motivational speaker, team building, conference speaker, keynote speaker