Endurance Skating

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Central Governor – The Brain’s Role in Exercise Performance

It's the brain, stupid

It’s the brain, stupid


It’s no great insight to say that there is a huge mental aspect in sport that can and often does make a huge difference to each individual being able to achieve their potential. Belief, willpower, mental toughness.. all these terms are commonly used to describe the mental battle that within ourselves when faced with the task of performing to our best when it matters.

The traditional model (also known as the “Hill” model) describes the ultimate limiter of exercise performance in terms of the physiology of the human anatomy – maximal oxygen uptake, blood lactate buildup, running economy etc – these are all explanations given why, for example, that your 5km PB average speed is faster than your marathon PB average speed. And to a good degree, they make a lot of sense – over a shorter distance your anaerobic energy system has a greater influence, you don’t have to tolerate the lactate buildup for as long (that’ll be the burning sensation in your legs), and you are less fatigued and running with better form. Accord, then to the Hill model, all other things being equal, the fastest and most successful athletes are those who have the best physiological adaptations, be it from genetics or training.

Yet as we know there are two sides of the coin to virtually every argument, and critics of the “physiological model” in recent years have not been slow to highlight them.

For example, the Hill model fails to explain the ability for just about any athlete, in any sport with a component of endurance, from elite to novice level, to be able to produce a “finishing kick” when the realisation of the finish is close at hand. If the goal is to finish in as fast a time as possible (we’ll disregard the “racing” aspect of it for a moment), then by definition the athlete was going slower than they were capable of prior to speeding up at the end. The physiological model falls flat on its face when asked to explain this outlier.

The 4-minute mile: pushing back the boundaries of the mind

The 4-minute mile: pushing back the boundaries of the mind



Another famously cited example of the inadequacies of the traditional model is the historical story of the 4-minute mile barrier, and the competition between Briton Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy.  Many would argue that Landy was the more gifted athlete from a physiological perspective, it was Bannister who was able to make the mental breakthrough and achieve the first 4 minute mile. And what of Landy? Prior to the 4 minute barrier being broken, Landy was consistently teetering just outside the time, having run: 4:02.1 – 4:02.6 – 4:02.8 – 4:02.5 –
4:02.7 – 4:02.3. He then remarked:

“Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.”

However, just 46 days after Bannister broke the 4-min mile, Landy went out and ran 3.57.9!! Over 4 seconds faster than his previous best! If a 2-second improvement was like running through a brick wall, one can only describe a 4 second improvement as smashing down the walls of Fort Knox. Once his conscious mind had accepted that it was possible, the subconscious mind now opened new pathways enabling him to reach a higher level of performance.

What’s going on here? To explain the gap between what the “Hill” model of exercise performance can explain and what actually happens, the alternative model proposed by Professor Tim Noakes called the “Central Governor”.


The brain receives biofeedback and regulates maximal performance

The brain receives biofeedback and regulates maximal performance


The theory postulates, simply, that it is the the brain, not the heart or the lungs or any other biological system that regulates muscle activation and is therefore the ultimate limiting factor in exercise performance.

Your brain’s over-riding goal above and beyond finishing a race a few seconds faster is to protect itself and the body from catastrophic damage. Your brain knows how far you need to go, and is continuously collecting data from the rest of your body during exercise, from which it makes a decision to how many muscle fibres it will allow to be activated in order to get you to the finish without suffering too much discomfort, damage or catastrophic failure. How does it limit muscle fibre over-activation that it deems unsafe? In the form of the familiar sensations of increased pain and fatigue if you try to go faster than what the brain thinks is is sustainable.  So pain and fatigue during exercise – sensations familiar to use all – have nothing to do with lactate buildup or shortage of oxygen, they are purely emotions generated by the subconscious mind in order to prevent the conscious from danger zone of possible self damage.

This can explain why, towards the end of a race, once the brain realises that it will be able reach the end without death or permanent damage, it opens the neural pathways for higher muscle fibre recruitment to sustain a finishing burst. Repeated training and racing at this intensity will gradually push back the bounds of the central governor as it realises little by little that the last time the body had to work this hard it still managed to do so without damage.  This is how to “get comfortable at being uncomfortable.”

Ultimately the brain is a selfish organ. It’s priority is to protect itself and the essential body organs from catastrophic damage. A stark example is when distance runners experience the infamous “BONK” – the brain detects that the body is dangerously low on liver glycogen and shuts down non-essential bodily functions. Under these conditions, the ability to carry on moving at a race pace is not deemed the most essential priority. That’s why no amount of willpower will get you past the this – once you bonk, you bonk. It’s not physical exhaustion beating you, it’s the brain preserving itself.

What is the body’s potential if Central Governor wasn’t there to protect it? We’re all aware that contact with strong enough electrical current can literally fling a person across the room – but that force doesn’t come from the electricity, that’s purely driven a reflex action from you the autonomous nervous system which bypasses the brain and spasming your muscular system into this reaction – designed to preserve our lives. Similarly, we have all heard anecdotal stories of ordinary people suddenly performing seemingly super-human feats of strength under moments of extreme stress- for example the classic “lifting the weight of a car to free a trapped loved one”. Again, this ability to over-ride the central governor under extreme duress has been programmed into our survival DNA and demonstrates just how much muscular force is available if we could willingly activate muscle fibres to the level of catastrophic failure.  And of course, if there were no central governor to protect us, if we were able to endlessly fling ourselves across the room at will simulating an electric shock, we’d damage internal organs and suffer some permanent damage pretty quickly.

However under normal operation we are limited by the brain’s desire to protect itself. The implications of this are huge – Tim Noakes often says that “in a closely run race, the athlete who finished 2nd best chose to do so.. That may seem a little harsh because nobody deliberately chooses to lose, but the reality is that – because they didn’t die or suffer catastrophic failure – then no matter how fast they raced, they could have been faster yet.”


He's not dead.. therefore he could have gone faster

He’s not dead.. therefore he could have gone faster


We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater – the traditional model is still incredible powerful and still the foundation for understanding exercise performance. Physiology is a real thing – whether through genes, training, or both, elite athletes are elite athletes because of superior physiology, and an overweight couch potato is not going to beat an Olympian no matter how hard they may try. But the two can co-exist, and if you accept that the mind is the ultimate limiter and that you didn’t eventually die the last time you thought you couldn’t go any faster in a race, then the possibilities for what is achievable become endless. That’s a comforting though for those of us who are always seeking improvement.



Further Reading







2 comments on “Central Governor – The Brain’s Role in Exercise Performance

  1. Pingback: London Inline Marathon 2014 race report | enduranceskating

  2. Pingback: In-Race Fueling Part 1: Is Your Ego Writing Cheques Your Body Can’t Cash? | Endurance Skating

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This entry was posted on August 2, 2014 by in Endurance, Mental.

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