Sports Medicine

, Volume 41, Issue 4, pp 307–328 | Cite as

Interactive Processes Link the Multiple Symptoms of Fatigue in Sport Competition

  • Axel J. Knicker
  • Ian Renshaw
  • Anthony R. H. Oldham
  • Simeon P. Cairns
Review Article


Muscle physiologists often describe fatigue simply as a decline of muscle force and infer this causes an athlete to slow down. In contrast, exercise scientists describe fatigue during sport competition more holistically as an exercise-induced impairment of performance. The aim of this review is to reconcile the different views by evaluating the many performance symptoms/measures and mechanisms of fatigue. We describe how fatigue is assessed with muscle, exercise or competition performance measures. Muscle performance (single muscle test measures) declines due to peripheral fatigue (reduced muscle cell force) and/or central fatigue (reduced motor drive from the CNS). Peak muscle force seldom falls by <30% during sport but is often exacerbated during electrical stimulation and laboratory exercise tasks. Exercise performance (whole-body exercise test measures) reveals impaired physical/technical abilities and subjective fatigue sensations. Exercise intensity is initially sustained by recruitment of new motor units and help from synergistic muscles before it declines. Technique/motor skill execution deviates as exercise proceeds to maintain outcomes before they deteriorate, e.g. reduced accuracy or velocity. The sensation of fatigue incorporates an elevated rating of perceived exertion (RPE) during submaximal tasks, due to a combination of peripheral and higher CNS inputs. Competition performance (sport symptoms) is affected more by decision-making and psychological aspects, since there are opponents and a greater importance on the result. Laboratory based decision making is generally faster or unimpaired. Motivation, self-efficacy and anxiety can change during exercise to modify RPE and, hence, alter physical performance. Symptoms of fatigue during racing, team-game or racquet sports are largely anecdotal, but sometimes assessed with time-motion analysis. Fatigue during brief all-out racing is described biomechanically as a decline of peak velocity, along with altered kinematic components. Longer sport events involve pacing strategies, central and peripheral fatigue contributions and elevated RPE. During match play, the work rate can decline late in a match (or tournament) and/or transiently after intense exercise bursts. Repeated sprint ability, agility and leg strength become slightly impaired. Technique outcomes, such as velocity and accuracy for throwing, passing, hitting and kicking, can deteriorate. Physical and subjective changes are both less severe in real rather than simulated sport activities. Little objective evidence exists to support exercise-induced mental lapses during sport.

A model depicting mind-body interactions during sport competition shows that the RPE centre-motor cortex-working muscle sequence drives overall performance levels and, hence, fatigue symptoms. The sporting outputs from this sequence can be modulated by interactions with muscle afferent and circulatory feedback, psychological and decision-making inputs. Importantly, compensatory processes exist at many levels to protect against performance decrements. Small changes of putative fatigue factors can also be protective.We show that individual fatigue factors including diminished carbohydrate availability, elevated serotonin, hypoxia, acidosis, hyperkalaemia, hyperthermia, dehydration and reactive oxygen species, each contribute to several fatigue symptoms. Thus, multiple symptoms of fatigue can occur simultaneously and the underlying mechanisms overlap and interact. Based on this understanding, we reinforce the proposal that fatigue is best described globally as an exercise-induced decline of performance as this is inclusive of all viewpoints.


Motor Unit Maximum Voluntary Contraction Mental Fatigue Sport Event Central Fatigue 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors gratefully thank Gaye Bryham and Dr Denis Loiselle for comments on the manuscript. No sources of funding were used in order to prepare this review. The authors have no conflicts of interest that relate to the content of this review.


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Copyright information

© Adis Data Information BV 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Axel J. Knicker
    • 1
  • Ian Renshaw
    • 2
  • Anthony R. H. Oldham
    • 3
  • Simeon P. Cairns
    • 3
  1. 1.German Sport University Cologne, Institute for Movement and NeurosciencesCologneGermany
  2. 2.School of Exercise and Sport Science, Faculty of Health ScienceQueensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia
  3. 3.School of Sport and Recreation, Faculty of Health and Environmental SciencesAUT UniversityAucklandNew Zealand

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