The Effect of Fatigue on Coordination

I just read the abstract of a study cited by Chris Highcock at Conditioning Research. (By the way if you are interested in either strength training or hiking, check out Chris' excellent new e-book called Hillfit.) It is one of many studies that show that muscular fatigue impairs coordination. Because coordination is essentially a mental skill, this is an interesting flip side to another study I recently blogged about which shows that working on math problems makes you physically weaker.

I suppose it is not surprising that fatigue impairs coordination, but I can see at least three practical implications from this study that are often ignored.

1. To optimize motor learning, minimize fatigue

Movement skills are best learned and refined in a context that is free from stress, pain and fatigue. For example, Feldenkrais movement lessons employ extensive rest periods in between movements as a way to avoid even the smallest amounts of fatigue. I recall Frank Wildman explaining the rationale as follows: "Tired muscles can't learn anything." Seems like Frank was right. So next time you are doing yoga, pilates, corrective exercise, or any other movement with the primary intention of improving your coordination, realize that performing the movements with speed, intensity or without adequate rest might work counter to your goals.

2. Skill under fatigue may be a skill in itself

Almost all sports require that you show your skills while tired. Of those that don't, such as golf, darts, or pool, competitors are often drunk, which creates a similar disadvantage. I would imagine that you can reduce the extent to which fatigue (or drunkenness) impairs your skills by practicing those skills while fatigued (or drunk). This would imply that, for example, basketball players should practice free throws after running some sprints. Although I don't have any studies to prove this, never bet against the SAID principle.

3. To avoid skill deterioration from fatigue, work on your fitness

This is something I have ignored far too often in my training to get better at my two favorite sports, squash and soccer. In these games, and many others of course, you need to able to execute skillful moves while at the same time sprinting around like a maniac. I have frequently experienced the pain of watching my skills completely deteriorate after getting gassed from too much running. It's not just a matter of being too tired to execute the moves, its more like being a little drunk - you feel unbalanced, unfocussed, and just sloppy in your movement. Like a boxer in the late rounds.

Sometimes after a failed squash match I will try to make a diagnosis for my poor performance. Maybe I will conclude that my backhand drop shot needs practice. But for some reason I tend to overlook the obvious prescription - I need to do some court sprints and get fit. This is a high payoff way to get better, not just because it gives you more energy to chase and hit balls, but because it prevents the deterioration of your skills that occurs with fatigue. In the game of squash and many other things as well, fitness and skill can be hard to separate.

OK, that's it. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.