Professional cyclists turn out to be not only physically better than their recreational counterparts; they can better deal with mental fatigue. Where professional cyclists are not influenced in their time trial performance by a mentally exhausting computer task, recreational cyclists are found cycling slower after such a tiring task.
What is the reason that pro riders like Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk perform much better than recreational cyclists who do their kilometers on any Sunday morning? Of course, they excel in physical area. Partly because of years of intensive training they have a very high oxygen uptake ability and can deliver very high power without acidification.
Possible top endurance athletes, such as Dumoulin and Kruijswijk, are also mentally stronger than their recreational counterparts, for example in the way that they deal with a mentally exhausting task. Mental or cognitive fatigue can have an effect on mood and performance. Recreational cyclists perform worse for example if they are mentally fatigued. Whether professional cyclists are indeed better able to deal with mental fatigue than recreational cyclists has been examined by a group of researchers from Australia, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
Contrary to recreational cyclists professional cyclists do not slow their cycling after having performed a mentally fatiguing computer task. Although the task was heavy for him, their cycling performance does not suffer. Recreational cyclists on the other hand ride one kilometer per hour slower after the same computer exhausting task than when they did a test that was not tiring.
The researchers found these remarkable results after eleven professional cyclists and nine recreational had to perform a slightly modified version of the famous “SYRUP TASK”, and after finishing the task they had to cycle as fast as possible for twenty minutes. During the thirty-minute-lasting SYRUP TASK the riders were behind a screen on which the words “green”, “red”, “yellow” and “blue” in any order appeared. This varied in the color in which the words were displayed between green, red, yellow and blue. The riders had to press a button as soon as possible when the corresponding word to the color was shown. The correct answer to the word “green” displayed in the color blue was so blue.
The exception was when the word was displayed in red, in this case, the correct answer was the word shown. So when the word “green” was displayed in the color red the correct answer was green.
As a control the riders had to cycling once after they had done a test that was not mentally fatiguing. Where the professional cyclists during each test cycle an average of just a bit faster over 44 kilometers per hour, the recreational cyclists rode after the exhausting computer task, proved more than one kilometer per hour slower, ie 35.5 vs. 34.3 kilometers per hour. Although the professional cyclists found the SYRUP TASK mentally tiring and frustrating like the recreational they were better in performing the task; they gave significantly more correct answers.
Professional cyclists are not only physically stronger than their recreational counterparts but also mentally. While professional cyclists just like recreational ones find a mentally boring computer task exhausting, it does not harm their subsequent cycling performance. Whether this is an inborn skill or caused by, for example long and boring endurance training is unclear. Nowadays, there exists special brain training that makes use of the Syrup task. Whether this type of training can ultimately lead to a better endurance performance is not clear. That has not been studied in athletes.