Practicing When Fatigued: Helpful, or Not Worth the Effort?

Playing the violin may not seem like an especially strenuous activity, but I nonetheless remember plenty of times when my muscles would feel tired and sort of zonk out on me in protest. Like they just didn’t want to do the work, and wouldn’t listen to me. Sometimes this would happen following a full day of rehearsals, lessons, performances, or practice. But sometimes this would just happen because it was at the end of a long day.

Those were the moments when out of frustration (or a desire to rationalize the value of watching TV instead), I’d wonder if it was pointless to practice. But then again, it’s not like one can just quit in the middle of a long performance, or quit in the middle of a recording session when you don’t have a decent take, so might there be some benefit in practicing even when tired? As a way of learning how to execute more effectively even when physically fatigued, and being better prepared for such situations in the future?

Specificity of training

There’s reason to think this might be a reasonable practice strategy, as there is a principle in exercise physiology known as “specificity of training” which predicts that the more closely our training matches the demands of competition, the better we will tend to perform.

For instance, if you want to get into better shape for tennis, your workouts should prioritize interval training or drills that emphasize brief spurts of all-out sprints and sudden starts, stops, and changes of direction as opposed to running in a straight line at a steady pace. Or if you want to develop greater endurance for running a marathon, you’ll probably want to focus on doing more running, not near-maximal sets of squats and deadlifts.

It’s an intriguing principle, and if it applies as much to motor skill learning as it does to physical exercise and training, it would seem that there might indeed be some value in learning difficult rep, practicing tricky shifts, or troubleshooting problem areas when you are fatigued – since chances are good that you will have to perform those skills someday when you’d rather be sleeping (say, a super-final round at 11pm on a day that began at 7am).

Which kind of makes sense, no?

But then there is an alternate view called the “optimal conditions” perspective, which suggests that no matter what sort of conditions you will have to perform a skill in, it is more effective to learn and practice those skills in conditions that facilitate the highest level of performance.

Which makes pretty good sense too.

Hmm…so which is it? Does practicing when fatigued better prepare us for the realistic demands of a performance?

Fatigue vs. no-fatigue

A team of researchers recruited 104 participants to test these two perspectives.

Participants were tasked with learning a motor task that emphasized fast arm and hand motions over two days of practice.

On the first day of practice, everyone got 20 practice trials. But one group – the fatigue group, had to crank an arm ergometer (think bicycle for your arms – but you don’t move anywhere) for 2 minutes before each practice attempt, and for 14 seconds between each subsequent practice attempt. The non-fatigued group just tapped on an x marked on the table for that same period of time.

One week later, everyone came back to the lab for 10 more practice trials. But this time each group was further divided in half, resulting in four groups of 26 participants each.

Half of the fatigue group performed their 10 practice trials exactly like they did the first time, cranking away at the arm ergometer before and between each repetition.

The other half of the fatigue group performed their practice trials totally normally, with no arm bicycling required.

Half of the non-fatigued group also performed their practice trials like they did the first day.

While the other half of the non-fatigued group now had to use the arm ergometer before/between repetitions.

So how’d they do?

What impact on performance?

Both groups improved during their first day of practice, but the arm ergometer definitely had an impact on the fatigue group’s performance. They were consistently slower in performing the task, and performed worse across the entire training session. No surprise here…

On the second day of practice, the researchers found that the folks who practiced when fatigued performed worse than the non-fatigued participants – at least when tested in normal non-fatiguing conditions. In other words, if you’re going to perform when you’re feeling reasonably well-rested, it’s also better to practice when you’re relatively well-rested. I know…sort of obvious, but still good to know.

So now the more intriguing question…does practicing when fatigued help you perform better when fatigued?

Well…not so much. If anything, when the groups were tested in fatiguing conditions during the second practice session, there was a slight tendency for the folks who practiced normally during the first practice session to outperform the folks who had practiced with fatigue. It wasn’t a statistical slam dunk, but all else being equal, it seems like it’s slightly better to practice when you are physically rested enough to play at a higher level, rather than powering through a practice session where you’re struggling due to fatigue.

Takeaways

This wasn’t part of the study, but I think any time we talk about practice and fatigue, it’s important to make a note about injury. Overtraining and overuse can have serious long-term consequences, so it’s never worth pushing past fatigue and ignoring what your body is telling you. After all, it’s easy to get a little lazy about proper technique and mechanics when we’re tired. And when lifting heavy weights, for instance, it’s when you start getting fatigued and maybe push too hard with sloppy form that you are more likely to get injured. It can be much the same with musicians.

So based on the results of studies like the one we reviewed today, it seems that heavy-duty practice and woodshedding when fatigued is not only of questionable or minimal benefit, but also potentially harmful. But keep in mind that this was a study that looked at practicing (i.e. learning and improving a skill) when fatigued as opposed to testing or trial-performing to gauge the consistency of a skill when fatigued. In other words, I do think that thoughtful and strategic testing of your ability to perform challenging passages or pieces under conditions of fatigue is a slightly different story.

So the next time you’re feeling worn down and your muscles don’t seem to be up for practicing, maybe it’s a good opportunity to engage in some mental practice, or a bit of score study, or some listening, or heck, a relaxing shower and an early bedtime so you can wake up bright and early, fully refreshed both mentally and physically.

Music is more a marathon than a sprint, after all, and there are lots of ways to take meaningful steps forward even away from our instrument. How do you keep progressing when you’re having one of those days?

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

13 Responses

  1. I just can’t thank you enough for your articles! They are truly helpful and keep me going. As an adult clarinet beginner trying to make her dreams being a musician come true, your essays have been spot on for helping me to understand what it means to be a musician. One of the best pieces to the puzzle is how much I have learned that is carrying over to so many other areas of my professional and personal life. Thank you so much!
    Jenny

  2. I offer this not only as a long-time musician, but also as a fencing master of 30+ years experience. (One of my students described fencing as playing a Bach fugue on the cello while sprinting up a steep hill!)
    There is a difference between skill ACQUISITION and skill DEMONSTRATION. Fatigue will interfere with the acquisition of a new skill and should be avoided. But if you will have to perform the skill in a fatigued state, it is best to include practice in an increasingly fatigued state, gradually improving skill-endurance. What’s critical there is that you don’t allow fatigue to alter the skill. That is, when the skill breaks down at a certain level of fatigue, back off one notch. Otherwise you may actually be practicing an unwanted VARIATION of the skill produced by fatigued instead of the EXACT skill you want to practice. The only way to perform fine skills precisely and consistently at a high level of intensity for an extended period of time is to progressively train that way. This is similar to gradually increasing the tempo of a practice piece, starting, for example, at 60 beats per minute and gradually increasing the pace to performance speed — or FASTER.
    I hope you find this comment helpful.

  3. Thanks for another great article on a very important topic. 2 things come to my mind. First I’d like to challenge comparing the effects of physical fatigue with those of mental fatigue. The latter probably being the one that impairs most musicians more often. If music is not your profession and you have a daytime job that drains you mentally, how much sense does it make to go home and do your practice regimen when you’d rather just sit on the porch and have a beer? Which leads me to the second point: in most bands – rock, blues and maybe to some lesser degree jazz – you’re going to have a couple of beers before, during and after the gig. So does it make sense to have one or two during practice? It’d be closer to the performance situation, for sure.
    Cheers

    1. Hi Holger,

      Yes – mental and physical fatigue are two different issues. It’s not so easy to practice after a draining day at work – but hopefully if music isn’t something one does professionally, it could serve as an activity that at least occasionally helps to recharge one’s batteries after such a day. Though there are of course days after which the most productive thing to do is just sit on the porch with a beer.

      Can’t speak to the drinking question though – that’s a good one!

      1. @ rock/blues bands & drinking: I’d think it would follow the principle that Adam Crown described above – skill acquisition (i.e., learning new songs, working out parts/arrangements) would be best done sober, but skill demonstration (i.e., playing through your setlist) should be practiced-at least sometimes-with a beer, if that’s the way you’re going to perform.

        I play a lot of Irish music, and this seems to be true for me in that context, anyway.

        1. Tim, I had to laugh when I read your post. I’ve played a few gigs where the biggest part of my pay was “drinks on the house” and I was determined to be paid handsomely. I found that there was a certain amount I could drink and perform well, a certain amount I could drink and perform BETTER (loss of inhibitions, I would guess) and a certain amount that made me sound like I was on my way to Bremen Town. Finding just the right balance is important in a lot of things, in a lot of ways, I’d say. Too little water, you die of dehydration; too much water, you drown. Same thing with form and content. The performances I did had a huge emotional component that was equally important as, or more important than the technical component. The audience would forgive a little with their ears, if they liked what they heard with their hearts. To a point, of course.

          One band I played in, we rather followed your suggested rule. Serious rehearsals for new material: no booze no hash. Rehearsals that were more “dress rehearsals,” running our sets through without correction or comment, a drink between sets wasn’t verboten. Seemed to work pretty well for us.

        2. There’s a famous story in Bill Crow’s excellent book, “Jazz Anecdotes” about the jazz saxophone player Zoot Sims:
          “Zoot was rarely at a loss for words. When asked by a fan how he could play so well when he was loaded, Zoot replied, ‘I practice when I’m loaded.'”

          It does add a layer of thought to the concept of practicing under the conditions you expect to play in. Of course, Zoot suffered from liver disease and died at age 59.

  4. It’s kind of usual for me to practice when fatigued. Basically because I have no other choice. I work full time and only have nights to practice. What I do is try to assess my mental and physical level of fatigue to decide what I’ll be studying. For me the physical side is more significant because I already have problems with the nerves of my right arm.
    When I’m slightly fatigued I can still bear some Sevcik (for example), but some days I know I can’t. These days I’ll study something I find more pleasureable (Hans Sitt?) or just practice a tiny excerpt from some piece I am working on. If I am too tired even for Hans Sitt I’ll play random fiddle tunes from memory. Next level of fatigue demands not playing anything at all and calling it a day. I don’t like not playing though as it is something I LOVE doing! (even Sevcik :P)

    1. Yep, I feel the same – not playing makes me unbearable after about 2 days. And it’s not that not having to (or rather being privileged to?) earn your money with it automatically turns practicing into a soul-soothing experience. I used to be a pro musician way back when, but the change to a “regular” daytime job has not changed much in my attitude when it comes to practicing and performing. Or, as a friend of mine puts it: “My daytime job is a nice relief from practicing the guitar”
      Thanks a lot for the insightful comments on the beer topic, everyone!

  5. Perhaps this comment belongs more to a post that deals with nerves, but the idea of practicing in a state like one you’d experience in performance is relevant here, too. My teacher has been known to make students run up and down flights of stairs (or minutes of jumping jacks; anything to get the heart rate pumping), take 10 seconds to breathe, then launch in to the Mozart Concerto, followed by 5 or so other excerpts, in an attempt to make this mock audition as similar to how one might feel at an actual audition. I doubt this is a good way of practicing routinely, but is probably helpful in occasionally simulating what we feel in big performance situations.

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