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This is especially important to me because my instructor has us wear masks so I tire much more easily. One of my biggest killers in exhaustion. My instructors have this idea that you should be able to sustain a tempo for 30 minutes. I have worked out and done cardio for years, to no avail, and my instructor says I need mental strength, not physical strength. How do I use mental strength to push my body past exhaustion?

Note: this is not a duplicate, I am not talking about doing this during training, I am talking about this during an actual fight. Also, I can deal with pain already.

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  • Being in shape is important, but I have a hard time imagining anyone other than a professional soldier needing to sustain fighting tempo for 30 minutes. That seems like a strategic problem.
    – mattm
    Oct 7 at 3:00
  • 1
    @mattm Not even a professional soldier, unless elite forces Oct 8 at 12:41
  • Have you looked for a mask that allows as much air-flow as possible? A mask specifically designed for sports might help, if you don't have one already. Compared to a home-made mask that's maybe thicker cloth. Oct 8 at 22:46
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Regarding cardio, there's a saying in fitness that being fit for cardio in an activity makes you fit for cardio in that area. Take someone who can run for two hours at a time, and tell them to attack the heavy bag non-stop, and they'll be gasping within minutes. Similarly, take someone who has learned to keep punching and kicking the heavy bag for long periods of time and put them in a pro-wrestling ring where they have to constantly run and take falls, and they'll gas out. The best way to train your cardio in an activity is to train your cardio in as close of an activity as you can. Notably, this does get harder if you're training for something like sparring, and don't have a partner to work off of.

From a purely mental perspective, my usual trick is lying to myself by setting short-term goals. When I'm running, it's telling myself I just need to keep running to the corner, or to the next car, and I'll take a break. When sparring, it's making my way through two more exchanges and I'll turtle up or signal that I want to break off for a bit (in the Capoeira that I do, this is part of the ritual, albeit one that only works when your opponent is willing). In each of these cases, unless I truly can't go on, I break that promise to myself and set another short-term goal. It sounds silly, but it's surprisingly effective to keep yourself going longer than you thought you could.

Don't abuse yourself, though. You are not fighting for your life (and, as been indicated in other places on this site, you're incredibly unlikely to ever have to fight for your life unless you live in a war zone), and one major negative effect of fighting exhausted is that your feedback loop is blunted, making it much easier to overstrain muscles and ligaments, or miss the early signs of pain and do yourself serious injury.

Lastly, if you're truly dealing with this during a fight, look at tactics for conserving energy in the given fighting style. For boxing, that's what the clinch is about, expending minimal energy to not fight, but rather keep your opponent from being able to fight. Similarly, rope-a-dope is a technique where you conserve energy by using methods to blunt the force of incoming blows while you only do what you have to to survive. In wrestling, that's where you get into rest holds where you can rely on the structure of your body so that the opponent has to exert more effort to actually force you into a position. Fight smart.

And, if you have an instructor who insists that you keep pushing even when you're exhausted, even after you've put in a good effort of getting a second wind, fighting smart, etc, consider quitting, because a good teacher should recognize that fighting while exhausted will lead to injury. If you are a soldier, you're expected to do so because your life is on the line. If you're attending biweekly Karate classes, you are not, and if they are treating it as a life-and-death situation, odds are that they're a bit out of touch with reality.

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I doubt that your instructor is an expert in human physiology. When your whole chest is heaving for air and each strike threatens to make you light-headed, that's not a mental issue. But mentally: Could you have friends or sparring partners hit you progressively harder over multiple weeks of sparring, so that you have to keep "fighting back". Physically, focus on gross motor actions, and whichever techniques you find easier. (E.g., I have a TKD background, so kicks were less exhausting.)

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  • But how can I push myself harder in the moment? I appreciate your answer "Physically, focus on gross motor actions, and whichever techniques you find easier.," but I already do that (the easiest things seem to be the most natural). Oct 6 at 16:58
  • Maybe... when you're working out on your own, set your phone's alarm for 1 minute, and go all-out on the punching bag. Repeat a few times until you're satisfied with your progress in maintaining focus. Then set your phone alarm for 2 minutes, and repeat. Work your way up a bit gradually with the duration and frequency, so that you don't over-stretch your muscles or ligaments or whatever it is that people have in their arms and shoulders. Oct 6 at 20:59
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I'd say your instructor is partly right, but it isn't the whole truth.

Your muscles need oxygen to work, as does your brain. When you use more oxygen than you resorp through skin and breathing, this means you at least in part run anaerobically (= without oxygen), ie. you first burn creatine in your muscles. This works for about 90 seconds until you massively lose speed and strength. After that, glucose is burnt, with lactate as a by-product, which damages the muscles in the long term. Depending on how high this anaerobic portion is and how much you can recover, the time frame you can use creatine in grows larger. Also, to uphold performance levels, you will have to train anaerobically (with reasonable time frames, ie. no longer than 5-10 mins without "rebreathing") to train the muscles to switch between oxygen, creatine, and glucose as source of energy faster. This works mainly by having larger muscles that can hold more creatine and glucose => strength training works best here. There's no mental capacity that can overcome these physical limitations though: if the burning material for the muscles is empty and a different mechanism is not ready yet, they just cannot carry on.

Thus, the best way to carry through longer periods of time is to stay below this threshold where you are anaerobic, and especially where you go into glucose burning, for as much time as possible.

Physically, this means bursting over constant strain. Mentally, this means relax. The more tension you got in your body, the higher the base usage of oxygen is since your muscles use up oxygen without any functional gain. This includes the brain, which is, by the way, the main user of oxygen overall. Thus, by 'emptying your mind' and relaxing, you hit two birds with one stone, as your brain and your muscles use less of the precious oxygen. That is why, in a sense, your instructor is correct, despite the obvious physical limitations.

What the mask does is making it harder to breathe, thus you have to be even more careful to optimize your activation and relaxation durations. Cardio does several things: 1. It optimizes the processes of energy production in your muscles. 2. It trains the heart and lungs so that the overall capacity to resorp and transport oxygen is improved. This is why "general cardio" does have an effect, but it is very limited in its maximal effectiveness. 3. The main effect though is that it optimizes the coordination of your muscles in the specific movement patterns so that the different muscle fibres become better in their interplay and the single fibres don't have to be active for as long as before. This makes you use less energy (read oxygen) and is why the cardio works better if it involves the specific movements you do in sparring.

Conclusion

Once you are exhausted, you reached the physical limits of your body. You can certainly carry on by sheer will, but this greatly raises the risk of injury. Thus, you have to learn how not to reach the point of complete exhaustion (or pushing it further away). For this, you need to learn to relax during fights, this is the main thing you can do with your mind. Additionally, anaerobic, movement-specific strength and cardio training will help you to optimize the processes of energy generation in your body so that you can reach higher levels of performance within the physical limitations given by impeded breathing.

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Some thoughts on it:

  • Fights are exhausting. You can see it in competitions all across disciplines. If many highly trained athletes tire within a handful of minutes, despite stalling or round pauses, no need to necessarily blame it on yourself.

  • Normal street fights are fast and don't last long, many not even a minute.

  • Wearing a mask is a great hindrance during exhaustive sports. Be careful not to exceed your limits!

  • Trainers are no gods, they don't know everything and often lack medical knowledge. Feel free to respectfully decline doing anything that you are not up to or where you have reason to believe is not good to do. It may take some courage, but you're the paying client.

  • Listen to the signs of your body. They exist for a reason. I'd rather tap too early than too late, for example, because I know I probably have to live with my body for decades to come without even facing a single street fight. In the end, nobody but you will have to live with the consequences of ignoring the signs of your body.

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For most people asking how to improve their mental strength, I'd suggest taking up a martial art - mental strength is one of the main benefits of doing so. As you're already doing that, and have been for a while by the sounds of it, if you lack mental strength now it might be a failure by your instructor.

I don't know you, your fitness, your health or your mental strength so it's really hard to suggest anything worthwhile. If your instructor can't help you get to where you want to be, then it might be a good time to speak to a personal trainer who can provide a more bespoke analysis of what needs to improve and how to get there. Often, diet and hydration are just as important as fitness when you're working to the point of exhaustion.

As a personal aside, from a taekwondo background, if the fight lasts more than a minute then my training has failed. I can't imagine why anyone would still need to be fighting after 30 minutes in the real world. If the adrenaline of a life/death situation isn't keeping you going then you probably don't need to be fighting.

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You don't. Mental strength is for filtering out instinctual messages you don't need, not for ignoring body status information. What messages do you need? In this case you have a sense that you're not getting enough air. Some people feel that way whenever they tire, you're describing it as unusual. You can confirm poor oxygenation with an under $20 O2 monitor that clips on your finger, but its not necessary. If you aren't getting enough airflow, your heart rate increases, you build up lactic acid in your muscles more rapidly and they lose strength sooner, and you may cramp up unexpectedly. Mental acuity, reasoning speed and rapidity of recall tend to drop. If at any point you lose peripheral vision or experience chest pain stop immediately, seek medical assistance, and find a different instructor, in that order.

A cardio instructor always has to exhort people to push past their instinct to keep something in reserve. A group of humans sitting around panting after exhausting themselves would be a buffet lunch for a predator. That instinctive urge is there to keep you alive so it attaches itself to any available rationale to convince you.

Your cardio instructor can probably recognize the different between a healthy flush and someone who isn't getting enough air, but the business of being a cardio instructor is all about helping endorphin junkies get their next fix. Its up to you to know if you're pushing yourself within your physiological limits or if you're injuring yourself.

My guess is that you have a strong urge to conform to group expectations and you wouldn't be asking this question if you didn't think you were doing yourself more harm than good doing cardio exercises with a mask on. So listen to yourself and find a cardio exercise that doesn't need a mask, or walk for your health and find a different gratifying endorphin release. Learn something new, pet a dog, watch a sunset ... your world doesn't have to revolve around cardio to be satisfying.

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This answer aims to add to, rather than replace, those which have already been posted. I also wish to distance my comments from issues of mask-wearing and COVID. I acknowledge they are realities of your current situation, but I think there's value in discussing your question in the context of a return to relative normality.

Exhaustion is technically an absolute condition, so it can be useful to employ the word 'fatigue' instead.

We tend to measure exhaustion against the most fatigue we've ever experienced. When we think about exhaustion, it is natural to remember the occasion upon which we have been most tired (for example, in the final stages of a first half-marathon), and find it difficult to conceive of being able to function in an even slightly more fatigued state.

But, as is routinely demonstrated to military recruits, we rarely push ourselves to the extremes to which we are capable. The hurdle is largely psychological. When an activity is voluntary (such as the half-marathon), we find ourselves continually at war with the knowledge that there is nothing compelling us to continue.

Military training, on the other hand, assumes the responsibility of preparing soldiers for circumstances in which any decision to quit will likely result in permanent injury, imprisonment, torture and/or death.

If you speak to anyone who has had the good/bad fortune to experience such training, they will likely relate an incredulity at just how far they were able to push themselves.

So, whilst I mean in no way to diminish your efforts thus far, or to assume you have not pushed yourself to a similar degree, it is quite possible that - despite your experience of relative exhaustion - you have not come close to your limits.

Please however heed this warning. I am not posting this with the intent of motivating you to push yourself to ridiculous levels. Exertion of this sort must only ever be done with the full knowledge of a well-trained supervisor or team of supervisors. It comes with a range of risks, including a much higher likelihood of injury, reinforcement of poor technique, possible heart failure and dangerous levels of dehydration.

It is not wise to push yourself to such an extent on a regular basis. Such effort is actually deleterious to the body and requires far greater than normal recovery time. The purpose of occasional maximal efforts is to educate you as to how far you might push yourself should you ever need to.

Even elite fighters (at least those with experienced trainers) during a fight preparation phase rarely push themselves this far with any regularity. Like all forms of training, aerobic and muscular endurance training is best achieved via gradual progression with scheduled 'deloading' phases, so that the body adapts safely to the increasing demands to which you are subjecting it.

If your teacher is routinely pushing you to levels at which you are experiencing a significant loss of co-ordination, mental acuity, and body water content, and at which you are experiencing nausea and dizziness, I suspect you may be pushed (or you are pushing yourself) too far, too often.

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I have to be not politically-correct and point out one of the reasons:

my instructor has us wear masks

This is one of the primary problems to focus on. Not being able to breathe normal, fresh air is going to significantly reduce your stamina during fight. It will lower your blood oxygen saturation much faster, and also make you rebreathe some of the exhaled carbon dioxide -- and elevated carbon dioxide levels in air being breathed in causes fatigue and unpleasant stuffy feeling in the chest. In extreme cases it could result is serious effects, like cereberal hypoxia and loss of consciousness. Besides, it makes absolutely no sense and is outright ridiculous to require wearing masks while training martial arts -- I would suggest finding another place to train, something that is an actual training club rather than a circus.

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