At peak performance, you can get into amazing states of focus and flow. Able to react with insane reflexes, execute perfect decisions and make massive progress. Then all of a sudden you start feeling tired, your focus begins to slip away, and along with it all of your skills seem to vanish. What this comes back to is mental fatigue. You might feel like a gaming god for an hour, but then start to feel fatigue creep in and steal your performance. The rest of the day you’re left feeling like a lesser version of yourself, completely unable to make progress.
Now mental fatigue exists for a reason, it is a mechanism in the brain designed to tell you when to slow down, preserve energy and get some rest. And after 12 hours of ranked games, you should probably listen to your mental fatigue. But what about those days where you feel this lack of focus set in after only a few hours? Well if this is happening to you, then chances are you’re not sustaining your mental energy as well as you could be. You’re likely making a common mistake that is preventing you from staying focused and energized for long periods of time.
So how can you fight off mental fatigue, preserve your energy and continue to play at peak performance for extended periods of time?
What Makes You Tired?
What causes the brain to run out of fuel and get fatigued? And how can we better sustain that fuel so we can maintain mental clarity and focus for hours on end? Well, it starts with calories.
While “burning calories” is usually associated with exercising, it’s better to recognize calories as much more than something you want to burn off. A calorie is a unit of energy that you get from food. And your body needs this energy to perform all of your daily activities, including using your brain.
Now, your brain needs a lot of this energy. Processing and transmitting information through electrical signals is very, energy expensive.
In fact, while the average adult brain weighs only 2 percent of total body weight, it demands 20 percent of our resting metabolic rate (RMR). So on a per mass basis, your brain can be consuming 10x more energy than the rest of your body.
Even during periods with very little brain activity, like during slow-wave sleep, there is still a high consumption of energy.
But what about more mentally demanding activities? And how much brainpower does competitive gaming require?
The Brain’s Energy Demand
Some of your brain tissue uses up a lot more energy than the rest, and activities that demand more of its use could possibly drain your mental energy faster.
Between the two major types of tissue in the brain gray matter and white matter, the gray matter requires far more energy. White matter contains large amounts of myelin, the fatty substance that wraps around axons to insulate them and keep electricity from leaking out. Because of this insulation, white matter uses about 20–25 percent as much energy as gray matter. This suggests that newer, uninsulated connections in the brain require 4-5x as much energy. Thus learning new things, practicing new skills and performing at the edge of our ability may cause a faster energy drain.
On top of this, even the reliance on certain senses can be more energy draining. For example, hearing has been one of the most important senses for our ancestors as it helped them sense and avoid dangerous animals lurking in the bushes. Thus as this sense developed over time, it required faster and more precise signaling, and thus more energy.
But in a competitive game, we need to stay on high alert with both our auditory and visual senses. Constantly staying vigilant to every detail. Thus a game that pushes us to the edge of our abilities, forces us to rely on less optimal circuits and uses more of our senses, will drain us of our energy faster.
Does this mean we should rely on our more automatic skills and strengths? Should we block out some of our senses while playing? Or just play less intense games to preserve our mental energy? Well if you want to improve your skills and play at a high level then you need to be constantly learning, pushing yourself harder and playing at the edge of your abilities. This means, you really can’t avoid this sort of energy demand from your brain.
But, if we can’t reduce the energy demand then we need to make sure we have sufficient supply. And if we can give our brains the right type of fuel and the optimal amount of it, we might just be able to solve our mental fatigue problem.
What is the Best Brain-Fuel?
So what is the optimal fuel for your brain? Earlier we mentioned the calorie as a common unit of energy measurement. Although it’s not necessarily calories we should be measuring. We need to get more specific and look at glucose.
Glucose is a form of sugar that your brain relies on to complete functions such as thinking, memory, and learning. Your brain consumes about 120 g daily, accounting for 60% of the glucose usage of the whole body in a resting state. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22436/)
And of course, when you use up all your glucose, you begin to get distracted and tired. All of a sudden you feel depleted and can’t sustain the same level of cognitive performance.
So mental fatigue is an issue of running out of glucose then, right?
Well, luckily the human body stores a backup supply of glucose. The average healthy human will have anywhere from 100-400 grams of glycogen stored in their liver at a given time. When glucose levels dip, the glycogen is taken from the liver and supplied to the body and brain.
During a long and demanding gaming session, this is plenty of back-up fuel, especially if you are continuing to eat normally throughout the day. So the issue isn’t necessarily a matter of running out of energy, right? Well, it’s complicated. What it has to do with is temporary dips in energy that convince your brain you’re running out of energy, whether you really are or not.
You see, your muscles can store excess carbohydrates so that if there is a sudden demand for glucose, they can produce their own energy. But your brain doesn’t have the extra space for these sorts of energy-storing cells, meaning the brain needs to be constantly supplied with oxygen and energy from the other organs in order to run properly. And this lack of back up energy makes it exceptionally sensitive to blood-glucose fluctuations.
Now, there are typically four grams of glucose present in the blood. When we experience a sudden demand for that glucose, our blood glucose dips and demands a backup supply from the liver. During that temporary dip in blood glucose levels, the muscles are able to supply themselves with their back up energy for immediate relief.
The brain, however, doesn’t have this luxury and treats the temporary dip as a sign that you’re running out of total energy and should start preserving what it has left. As a result, this temporary fuel shortage in the brain triggers a rise in adenosine levels. And this might be the true culprit for your mental fatigue.
Adenosine is a neuromodulator, believed to play a role in promoting sleep and suppressing mental stimulation. It is most commonly associated with the tiredness that we feel as the day goes on and essentially builds up as a way to tell our brains we need to rest and recharge. In fact, Caffeine is so effective at promoting wakefulness because it temporarily blocks adenosine receptors.
But part of Adenosine’s method of action is to block the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine. Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter for helping you feel focused and motivated. So as adenosine builds up and dopamine levels decrease you end up feeling tired, unmotivated and unable to focus.
In short, the brain is vulnerable due to its inability to store glucose. When the brain senses temporary energy depletion it triggers a rise in adenosine. Adenosine then tells your brain to stop burning so much energy, out of fear that you won’t be able to gain any more glucose anytime soon. And this causes you to feel tired, lazy and mentally fatigued. So what it comes back to isn’t necessarily a drop in overall energy supply. The real issue comes from the acute dips in energy that the brain can’t compensate for…
The Best Diet for Esports Players
So how do we supply our brain with a consistent level of glucose so that we don’t experience these dips? Well, certain foods can create a significant rise in blood glucose levels, especially foods that are high in carbohydrates. So should we just consume a lot of high-carb foods and spike the blood glucose levels as much as possible?
Well, although the human body needs glucose, it also needs the amount of glucose to remain at a moderate level. When the body has more glucose than it’s used to, it rapidly produces insulin in an attempt to keep the levels consistent. This can cause an opposite sling-shot effect for your blood glucose levels, which results in a sudden drop in energy levels, also known as hypoglycemia, or a sugar crash.
And as you might guess, this rapid dip in blood glucose DESTROYS your mental performance. In fact, the effect is far worse than the slow decline of mental energy you’ll feel in a typical gaming session. Meaning that what you’re eating might actually be the biggest source of mental fatigue that you encounter.
So how then do we maintain a consistent level of energy if it naturally dips with high performance and also dips when we try to refuel?
Well, the key is to fuel up with the right kind of food and desperately avoid the wrong kind of food. The main source of glucose you get will come from the carbohydrates in your diet, and there are two main types, simple carbs, and complex carbs.
While all carbohydrates function as relatively quick energy sources, simple carbs are digested and absorbed much more quickly. This can lead to spikes in blood glucose levels followed by energy crashes. Complex carbs, on the other hand, are broken down and absorbed much slower. And the slower they’re digested, the better it is for providing continuous energy. So if you want to maintain your energy throughout a long gaming session, it makes sense to avoid simple carbs and stick to the much more sustainable, slow-burning carbohydrates.
Unfortunately, food packages don’t often have a label for slow or fast-burning carbs. So how can you tell which foods are going to wreck your performance and which foods are going to keep you energized? Well here are three key ways to make sure you’re not eating something that will spike your blood sugar and destroy your mental performance.
- The first tip is to use vegetables as your secret weapon for sustained mental energy. Vegetables like spinach, cabbage, avocados, and broccoli are all high in a type of fiber called soluble fiber. Soluble fiber slows down digestion and thus the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream. As a result, when consuming carbs alongside high fiber vegetables it will help those carbs to be burned at a much slower and steadier rate, allowing you to have a consistent and reliable source of energy for hours.
- Second is creating a personal sugar limit. Start by looking at the food label to see how much of the carbohydrates are labeled as sugar. On all nutrition facts, you will see a label for total carbohydrates, under it you will see the sugar content and fiber content. Generally the lower the sugar content and the higher the fiber content the better! But how much sugar is too much? Well based on the serving size and how many servings you plan to have, calculate how many grams of sugar you are about to consume. As a personal rule of thumb, I never like to consume more than 20 grams of sugar in a single sitting. If I do, I like to consume a generous amount of vegetables to help prevent blood sugar spikes.
- The last tip is to use google to identify the glycemic index of the food you’re eating. The glycemic index measures how quickly and how much a carbohydrate raises blood sugar. Carbohydrates with a low GI value of 55 or less cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose. Ideally, stick to food with low glycemic index value as your main source of carbohydrates, and actively avoid anything with a value of 70 or above. If you are looking to have something that has a higher glycemic index like soda, french fries or bread, then at least wait to have it until after your gaming session when you don’t need to be as mentally vigilant.
As you begin to apply these 3 tips, pay close attention to how certain foods create an energy sling-shot effect. And notice how other foods provide a much more sustainable, long-lasting energy. You’ll quickly recognize which foods to avoid when you need to perform at your best, and which foods you can rely on. For help with the process, I’ll add some resources in the description including a glycemic index food list.
Competitive gaming requires a lot of brainpower. And if you’re constantly pushing yourself to improve, then this is unavoidable. But, if you can’t reduce the energy demand of your brain then you need to make sure you have a sufficient supply of this energy. Without a sustainable source, you’ll slowly deplete your energy, triggering acute spikes in adenosine that lead to feeling slow, unfocused and unmotivated.
But far worse than this slow build-up of mental fatigue is when we consume simple carbs that cause our blood glucose to spike and then plummet. This is by far one of the most overlooked aspects of mental fatigue among competitive gamers. Even for those at a pro-level who reach for quick snacks with high amounts of added sugar.
The truth is most players who make this mistake have no idea what’s causing them to play so inconsistently. And unless they dig into the research, they’ll never know.
But those who understand how to supply their brains with sustainable fuel will be able to play at peak performance much longer, grinding out more ranked games every day, making more consistent progress, and ultimately improving much faster.