Podcast, Science

Mindfulness, Mental Fatigue, and Brain Endurance Training with Walter Staiano, PhD | EP#207

 November 11, 2019

By  Mikael Eriksson

Mindfulness, Mental Fatigue, and Brain Endurance Training with Walter Staiano, PhD | EP#207

TTS207 - Mindfulness, Mental Fatigue, and Brain Endurance Training with Walter Staiano, PhD

Walter Staiano, PhD, is a researcher and performance consultant specialising in mental fatigue, mindfulness in athletic performance, and the mechanisms that increase and decrease perception of effort and thereby endurance performance.

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • How mindfulness training can impact athletic, cognitive and social performance. 
  • How mental fatigue arises, how it impacts endurance sports performance and how to manage and minimise mental fatigue. 
  • What Brain Endurance Training (BET) is and how it has the potential to improve endurance performance beyond the benefits of physical training. 

Sponsored by:

Precision Hydration

Precision Hydration
One size doesn't fit all when it comes to hydration. Take PH's free Triathlon Sweat Test to get personalised hydration advice tailored to what you're training for. Use the promo code THATTRIATHLONSHOW to get your first box for free!

The finest triathlon wetsuits, apparel, equipment, and eyewear on the planet. Trusted by Lucy Charles, Javier Gómez-Noya, Flora Duffy, Mario Mola, and others. Visit roka.com/tts for 20% off your order.


About Walter Staiano

4:01 -

  • I'm a research at the University of Valencia in Spain, and I'm also a sports consultant for elite athletes in Europe.
  • I also work at a neuroperformance consultant for neurotech applications and companies moving into this field. 
  • I studied science as my undergraduate degree and then did a Masters in exercise physiology - this is when I became interested in fatigue. 
  • I then decided to start a PhD split between the sport science and the neurophysiology department in Bangor University. 

    Samuele Marcora was one of my supervisors.
  • My PhD topic was to understand the effect of mental fatigue and cognitive processes on physical performance and perception of effort. 

Mindfulness in team sports

5:39 - 

  • I started by studying the effect of mental fatigue, but I was always interested in psychological topics, including mindfulness meditation. 
  • Mindfulness meditation has been around in the sports world for around 15 years, and there has been an increase in knowledge of how this can be applied in sports. 
  • While I was working at the Olympic committee in Denmark we ran some research with the under 19 handball National team. 

    We did a study looking at the effect of 6-weeks of mindfulness training on physical and cognitive performance.
  • We found that the group engaged in meditation improve in their physical ability not only in handball but also in sprinting with decision making - around 8-9% more than controls.

    This tasks is a 5 minute sprint task, and then at the end there are lights and you need to go where the light tells you. They did this multiple times, continuously. 

    Those who had engaged in mindfulness didn't improve their sprinting but their decision making was better so they ended up faster. 

    We tested this on the handball court but we couldn't use opponents, which is why we used lights instead.

    In the second battery of physical tests they were simulating how they defend in a handball game, again using lights, which was physically and cognitive demanding. 

    We also made a rule that lights on the left had to be touched with the right hand, and vice versa, as this is how you cover in handball. You could then assess speed and mistakes. 
  • We also saw that they improved from a cognitive perspective - around 15% more than controls, and were more capable to sustain a high mental load with certain cognitive tasks.
  • From a social perspective, all athletes engaged in mindfulness training improved here as well - e.g. in schools, social settings and at home. 
  • This demonstrates that this type of intervention is an all round win win situation. 
  • With this research it was important to see how people respond when they're tired, as this is vital in real life performance. 

Mindfulness in endurance sports

14:09 -

  • At the moment there is a lack of direct evidence in this field. 
  • However, there is a lot of evidence that shows how mindfulness has an effect on emotion regulation processes, which are very important for endurance athletes. 
  • When you decided to do a triathlon, you know already that when you get to the run you'll be tired from the previous disciplines. 
  • At the moment there is a lack of direct evidence in this field. 
  • However, there is a lot of evidence that shows how mindfulness has an effect on emotion regulation processes, which are very important for endurance athletes. 
  • When you decided to do a triathlon, you know already that when you get to the run you'll be tired from the previous disciplines.
  • There are a lot of decisions to make throughout the race, and your ability to perceive how much effort you do is heavily dependent on how tired you are from decisions previously. 
  • Mindfulness makes your brain more efficient - it allows you to focus on one thing and exclude all the possible variables that act as a disturbance. 

    It reduces the noise from the environment and allows you to focus on what you're doing. 
  • You try to be objective in the situation, which is important when the negative self-talk begins to kick in. 

    It can be particularly relevant after races that haven't gone well or after injury, as these thoughts can accumulate in your brain and make you mentally tired. 
  • Mindfulness can help you get out of a negative mood, and put you back into a more objective, positive mode. 

    This helps you with decisions throughout the race. 
  • When you're mentally fatigue it can be very hard - your emotions and mood are upside down, your ability to perceive how good you are at doing what you're doing is altered. 

    This can make you feel like you are not capable to do what you're attempting, and this can be very tricky for the athlete. 
  • You often can't tell you're mentally tired, you only see the after effects - low self-confidence, low mood etc. 
  • Mindfulness may also be beneficial particularly for athletes who want to perform in every workout and can't always achieve this. 

    It can give you the mental resources to manage this situation and build to a strong performance. 
  • You make a plan you want to follow but it's not always possible. 

    Sometimes you're too tired, or too stressed or there are other events going on in your life that stop you being able to train. 

    The ability to accept that this can happen to anyone will help you. 
  • The top athletes are often the ones who know exactly when to slow down, and realise when a training session is not working out and they need to change it. 
  • This can help you realise if you've got other issues - e.g. overreaching or overtraining. 
  • The ability to know what's going on with your body or mind is a significant strength. 

How to do mindfulness

23:31 -

  • For our research, we had teachings for three days at the start, and then we had once a week top up teaching about mindfulness. 

    At home, the athletes were using an app to ensure they were compliant with the training. 

    The app helped you get into the state, and had a voice to accompany you through the process. 
  • Ideally, you'd want to learn how to meditate in a certified centre 3-5 times a week until you felt ready to do it yourself at home, and you could then use an app to keep you on track. 
  • Apps in generally simplify life sometimes and they can be used for athletes who have a heavy schedule and can't reach a centre. 
  • Doing 10-20 minutes everyday can be enough to have an impact. 
  • It's surprisingly how much people can't stay focused on the moment for 60 seconds, so being able to work up to 20 minutes is a dramatic improvement and you will be making beneficial changes to your brain. 
  • The everyday aspect is important because it needs to be consistent. 

    If you've never done it, you can start with shorter times and build up each day. 
  • Athletes are constantly bombarded with new things they can do to improve their training, so this is meant to be a simple one that can impact multiple domains of athletic performance. 

    It's effective in physiological performance, recovery, social and cognitive aspects. 

    The return on investment is very high! 
  • In terms of apps, Headspace Headspace is a worldwide app (for English speakers) that has many different types of exercises, including an area specifically for sports performance.

    This was introduced specifically after the Rio Olympic games when athletes had tried it there. 

    I used this app in the study I ran. 
  • Another app I came across while in Australia was Smiling Mind which is a smaller app but a good concept. 

Recommended Mindfulness Apps

Mental fatigue

31:32 -

  • The textbook definition of mental fatigue is that it's a psychobiological state of tiredness that makes your brain foggy and slows you down in many aspects.

    E.g. slowing down your ability to make decisions, react to things, and reducing your mood and motivation. 
  • People who are mentally tired are constantly demotivated to engage in activities such as physical exercise. 
  • Mental fatigue is a big thing in sport, it's often there but people either don't talk about it or don't notice it. 

    Often athletes don't think mental fatigue will have a big impact on sports. 
  • The first study I published showed that people who are mentally tired had a reduction in cycling performance of 60%. 

    Different research groups have looked at this in different sports such as running, kayaking, rowing and football. 

    A constant across the studies was that people who are mentally tired had a reduction in performance - either endurance performance because their RPE was reduced, or a reduction in technical skills. 
  • There are now nearly 40 studies in this area, and there are years of literature which prove that mental fatigue impacts cognitive processes. 

    For example studies of pilots have shown that mental fatigue impacts their ability to drive cars or planes. 
  • Before me and my supervisor did this study, the only study before it was by a famous Italian physiologist at the end of the 19th century! 
  • The magnitude of impact depends on the study and protocol used. 

    The effect is big in protocols where you need to decide when you can stop. 

    E.g. when you do a time to exhaustion test with a fixed power, you see a good effect because it really depends on the person's ability to perceive their effort. 
  • If you do a time trial, it's a bit different because you are constrained by the time.

    If your perception of effort is altered you see the gear you choose to pedal in is different. 
  • The percentage difference between a time to exhaustion and a time trial test is between 1-5%. 

Mechanisms of mental fatigue

38:49 - 

  • In our daily life, a whole day of working in front of a computer can make you mentally tired. 

    Particularly if your day has been stressful or you've had an argument that has put you in a bad mood. 
  • People really disengage from sport when they are mentally tired because your ability to decide to exercise, which is based on how much effort you need, is reduced. 
  • Mental fatigue has a big impact on effort based decision making processes. 
  • You choose anything in life based on how much effort you need to put in, and the reward you will get out of it. 

    E.g. in animals they move for hunting or for escaping, as these are needed for survival. 
  • Short term bias has an impact - we make decisions that are good for us in the short term without fully considering the long term. 

    We generally make decisions that cause less effort and pain in that moment. 
  • We've done some studies using caffeine to try and understand the mechanisms of mental fatigue. 

    Caffeine has the ability to cancel out the effect of mental fatigue because it has an affect on the adenosinergic system.

    When you have caffeine it binds to the adenosine receptor and doesn't let it bind or accumulate. 

    This is something we think could be the neurophysiological basis of mental fatigue. 
  • There are not a lot of studies done to see exactly what's going on, we can only see other side effects of indirect results. 
  • We have also noticed the link between mental fatigue and a change in perception of effort. 

    The areas of the brain involved in effort based decision making were also more activated, so this may also be implicated. 
  • We are still in the early stages of this research but we are trying to understand it better. 

    If we can better understand the mechanism we may find ways to counteract it. 

Managing mental fatigue

44:49 - 

  • I'm currently working on a cognitive recovery strategy. 

    It's a combination of strategies that you can use when you're mentally tired, or to reduce mental fatigue. 
  • Positive self-talk is an example, it has the effect of reducing the perception of effort particularly when you are tired. 
  • I'm working on sounds (binaural beats) which can relieve the negative effect of mental fatigue. 
  • We published a study, and we've just submitted another, into the cognitive domain to see listening to binaural beats can improve ability to engage in cognitive tasks when mental fatigue is occurring. 
  • When I use them for my studies I specifically pick ones that are validated.

    With the group in Denmark we are trying to put together an app which has validated sounds and can hopefully be used for focus and concentration, as well as reducing mental fatigue. 

    These may also be helpful in sleep hygiene. 
  • When Samuele Marcora and I started to do brain endurance training in 2014/15, we showed that people became more resilient to fatigue. 
  • Recently I did a few more studies that showed that doing mental fatigue tasks (brain endurance tasks) during your physical training seems to create an adaptation that can improve your performance. 

    I have good data with football players and cyclists. 
  • There are many apps available for this kind of task and there are a few being worked on at the moment, including one by Samele Marcora. 

Brain training protocol

50:55 - 

  • When I started doing the studies I realised that you can't apply a lot of the cognitive stimulus to athletes because they don't have that much spare time during the week! 
  • We decided to be more efficient with time, and realised the effect of the cognitive training would be higher if you were already tired. 
  • We initially tried it with the National badminton players in Denmark. 

    They were engaging with their normal training routine, and whenever they had a break they were doing the brain endurance training on computers. 

    It was usually in the 2-minute break between sessions on court, and then an extra 20-30 minutes at the end of the training session. 

    They did it three times a week. 

    This was effective, because they were doing it when they were already tired. 
  • The first time they tried it they found it really hard because their brain was exhausted after the session, but gradually they found it really effective. 

Professional athletes reaction to mental fatigue

53:28 - 

  • We ran a study 4 years ago where we tried to compare elite cyclists to amateur cyclists on their resistance to mental fatigue. 

    We were inducing 30 minutes of mental fatigue. 

    In amateur cyclists in reduced their cycling performance, and in elite athletes it did not. 
  • We suggested that the type of training this elite endurance athletes were doing was making them more mentally resilient. 
  • This can also be seen in special forces training, as they do certain types of physical training that improves their ability to respond to threats and to mental fatigue. 
  • When you train only physically, you reach a point where you can't add more as you risk overtraining. 
  • But if you can find a cognitive stimulus you can add to your physical training, there will be less of a limit. 
  • Clearly elite athletes are already more resilient - due to their lifestyle, training and probably also genetics. 

    However it should be possible to train it further because they are still humans! 
  • I probably do physical interventions as much as I do cognitive interventions with athletes. 
  • There are some people that are prone to be more mentally tired, and this can have an impact on performance. 

    E.g. a cyclist becoming fatigued 3/4 through a race can be a problem because it'll be harder for them to choose where to sit in the pack. 

    We often test that kind of cyclist and they really struggle with cognitive tests. 

    So we'd then engage in doing the brain training because we feel the effect of this may be more relevant than doing something else. 
  • There is a heavy connection between mental fatigue, emotional regular and perception of effort.

    It's always important that people who are tracking their training don't forget to include emotion and mood tracking. 

    These are influenced by the mental fatigue but also the other way around, and they relate to motivation, so it's important to monitor them. 
  • Doing mindfulness in general can make you more aware of things going on both in your body and mind, and how you can find solutions for that. 
  • The ability of an athlete is to be able to know yourself a little more, and try to understand what is going on in your body and mind. 
  • Training that is specifically tailored for you if you're honest with what is going on, is always going to be better and more effective in the long run. 

Related app

  • HRV4Training can be helpful for monitoring and tracking all these factors.

Professional athletes reacting to mental fatigue

1:02:45 -

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports or your field of expertise?
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
    • For a person like me, I have racing thoughts which can be both a problem and advantage - I'm interested in many things and want to work on them all. I've found meditation really handy and it helps channel my energy and focus on what I have to do in the moment. 
    • Also having a good sleep routine! 
  • What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point during your career?
    • I'd been training a lot physically, and if I'd have known the benefit of the psychological aspect I'd have put more attention on that. I often failed to reach my target in races and I couldn't understand why, but I think sports psychology clarifies a lot of this. 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Walter Staiano

Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show. 

I sincerely want you to contact me to

  • Send me feedback
  • Give constructive critic​ism 
  • Request topics and guests for the podcast
  • Send me your triathlon-related questions 
  • Tell me that you've rated and reviewed That Triathlon Show so I can give you a shout-out on the show and tell you how much it means to me!
Subscribe to That Triathlon Show and never miss an episode!


Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy! 

Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

If you are a long-time listener and appreciate the value the podcast brings, please consider taking a couple of minutes for leaving a rating and review on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you can think of leaving a rating and review.

  • Hi, I can’t find the app you mentioned at the end.. Soma MPT.. Is that correct? Great episode by the way.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Explore our products and services