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?