Just because your muscles feel exhausted, doesn't mean they are according to new research from exercise physiologists at Bangor University, who say that 'perception of effort, not muscle fatigue, limits endurance performance'.
Up until relatively recently, it was thought that exhaustion occurs when when the active muscles are unable to produce the force or power required by prolonged exercise. In other words, they feel like they're physically unable to continue and you stop.
But according to research by Dr Sam Marcora using rugby player as guinea pigs, endurance athletes generally give up feeling that they're exhausted before they reach their 'absolute physiological limit'. Or in simple terms, it may feel as if your legs simply can't carry on, but in reality, they can, you just don't know it.
In fact, says Marcora, immediately after exhaustion, the leg muscles are capable of producing three times the power output required by high-intensity cycling exercise.
The explanation is that pain exists as a marker to prevent your body damaging itself and the perception that we've reached exhaustion is there to prevent us from causing real damage by pushing too hard. But in reality, we're physically capable of going beyond that point.
For sports scientists it could mean a radical rethink on training techniques with a new focus on discovering how far athletes can go beyond perceived exhaustion in training to improve endurance performance.
What does it mean for walkers and climbers? On a normal hill day, not too much we're thinking, but when things go horribly wrong, or you're pushing your limits on a hard alpine route, you have more in your locker than you might think. And just because your legs are screaming in agony, doesn't mean they can't carry on.
Then again, for some mountaineers, this is hardly news. As Joe Simpson, for one, could tell you, when your survival is at stake, your body can do a lot more than you might think it's capable of.
Source: The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle? Samuele Maria Marcora · Walter Staiano, European Journal of Applied Physiology DOI 10.1007/s00421-010-1418-6 published online March 11 2010.
More about Bangor University and its School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences at www.bangor.ac.uk.