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5 Ways to Deal with CNS Fatigue

Your training engine isn’t all bones, muscles and connective tissue. Here’s how to identify and combat fatigue to your central nervous system.

The goal of any hardcore strength athlete is simple: to get bigger and stronger. But posting PRs on the leader board at your local gym requires more than just logging long hours with heavy weights. That’s because constantly training at max intensities can lead to overtraining syndrome and fatigue of the central nervous system (CNS). Few athletes give much thought to the importance of the CNS and its effect on your training. Essentially, it is the battery that is powering the engine — faulty connections and faded cells can mean the difference between a roar and a click when you turn the key. And dead tired is no way to hit the weight room. As ever, better balance is the key to optimum performance.

1. Regular Programming

Proper periodization is a must if you are going to prevent overtraining and CNS fatigue. A sound workout program will include an adequate amount of down time by occasionally deloading your training schedule. The exact amount of recovery each strength athlete needs is directly proportional to the intensity and volume of their program. In simple terms, the more work you do, the more rest you will need. Ivan Abadjiev, the former weightlifting coach for the Bulgarian national team, suggests that with repeated, planned exposures to training stress, the lifter’s nervous system will learn to adapt and become more tolerant of CNS fatigue.

Action Point: It’s a given in the iron game that max lifts are required to get stronger, but plan them intelligently, and when you do, be sure to limit the attempts performed in your upper range. Powerlifting great Louie Simmons says that constantly training at your maximum in the same exercise for over four weeks will cause CNS fatigue.

2. Sound Nutrition

Another essential component for combating CNS fatigue includes following a sound nutritional plan. Much of the scientific research into CNS fatigue has focused on serotonin and dopamine due to their roles in regulating things like sensory perception, mood, and other important factors. Studies on CNS fatigue suggest that an imbalance can occur in these two critical neurotransmitters, caused by a spike in serotonin and a drop in dopamine levels. But the good news is that proper nutrition and supplementation can help manage the serotonin and dopamine levels in our brains.

Action Point: If your immune system is weak, it won’t be able to handle the daily demands you place on it in the gym (or even at work/school). Limiting (not eliminating) stimulants like caffeine, while eating a diet high in healthy carbs (watch your sugar intake) and cutting down on (not eliminating, unless you have allergies) potential inflammatories like gluten, will allow your body and CNS to function at an optimal level. In addition, studies show that fish oil, curcumin, the amino acid tyrosine, and glutamine are all great supplements for enhancing your body’s ability to fight off stress.

3. Limit Stress

Believe it or not, psychological stress caused by what we think and feel can create huge consequences on our overall performance. Sports scientist Tim Noakes at the University of Cape Town uses the “Central Governor Theory” to explain this process.

Noakes suggests that fatigue may be entirely related to your emotions more than any potential physical issue. According to Noakes, feelings of fatigue and discomfort during exercise are part of the governor’s control on your body that’s supposed to make you stop when you’re feeling fried. In addition, there are certain types of personalities that will be more susceptible to stress than other athletes. The person who can’t ‘turn it off’ will end up compounding any real physiological problems they might be having with their body because stress feeds on stress. Ultimately in order to get stronger you need to develop an effective system for dealing with the stress that is required to reach new heights in your training.

Action Point: As crazy as it sounds, there are tons of studies that support the use of meditation and its positive effect on the brain. But its biggest impact on your body is as a stress-buster that helps calm the nervous system. It’s really not that hard to learn, all you will need is a few quiet minutes a day and an open mind.

4. Sleep More

One of the most important weapons to have in your toolbox as a strength athlete is a good night’s rest! That’s because numerous studies have shown that sleep deprivation can negatively impact your body’s recovery after a hard workout by altering the amount of critical hormones in your system including cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormone.

Action Point: If you’re not getting adequate sleep — most studies point to 7–9 hours per night, but this is relative to you and your body — you won’t recover as quickly from your last session, and the next one could hit you even harder by pushing you over the edge.

5. Understanding Recovery

According to Dr. Brian Moore the Founder and CEO of ORRECO, a cutting-edge biomarker program designed to optimize player performance through proper recovery, athletes need constant monitoring to be successful. Many still subscribe to the old-school philosophy of “the more I train, the better the results.” This works up to a certain point, then you come crashing down. Because no matter how mentally and physically tough an athlete is there comes a time when the body won’t be able to cope. Moore and his colleagues just conducted a major review of all the critical factors of overtraining and just published it in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Action Point: In Great Britain, scientists now use the term Unexplained Underperformance Syndrome (UUPS) to describe persistent fatigue since numerous factors such as overall health, nutrition, sleep, training experience, and psychosocial factors can all play an essential role in the body’s ability to adapt to exercise and overall CNS fatigue. The researchers found that UUPS can be prevented through the collection of biomarker data that is used to see how well the body responds to changes in training volume and intensity, a specific recovery solution, or the stress caused by competition.