Outwitting the governor

Performance is determined by physical fitness and by mental attitude. We devote a lot of mental effort to the challenge in deciding how to maximize physical fitness. The finer points in the debates between the different schools of training theory – Lydiard v Furman; Maffetone v Lydiard and many others – remain a topic for fertile discussion, but the re-assuring fact is that there are many ways to get physically fit. The finer points of the debates about the physical aspects of training only really matter when we get stuck in a rut and fail to improve.

In contrast, in my experience, the topic of mental attitude has been a less fruitful topic of debate. When I read articles about the psychology of sport I usually get the feeling that what is on offer is a set of fairly trite and uncontroversial observations that might be dismissed merely as common sense. However, as a young Australian growing up in the era when John Landy vied with Roger Bannister for the glory of breaking the barrier of four minutes for the mile, and a few years later, when Ron Clarke broke world record after world record but never won an Olympic gold medal, it was clear to me that the right mental attitude was crucial but also elusive.

The 1954 Vancouver mile provided the most graphic illustration that self-belief is paramount. The image of Landy looking over his left shoulder as he rounded the bend into the home straight while Bannister stormed past his right shoulder has been cast in bronze by the sculptor, Jack Harman, and serves as an enduring reminder that mental preparation is as important as physical preparation.

While much that has been written about sport psychology has left me uninspired, I have found Tim Noakes concept of the central governor very thought provoking. In formulating his central governor hypothesis, Noakes has developed an idea proposed many decades earlier by the celebrated muscle physiologist, A.V. Hill: performance is limited not by our lungs or muscles but by our brain, acting on the basis of physiological signals from the body to prevent us from damaging ourselves.

One of the most frustrating experiences in distance running is hitting the wall in the final few miles of a marathon. It feels as if every last muscle fibre has been exhausted; there is simply no more fuel left and it takes immense will power even to drag the legs onwards to the finish line at a pace scarcely faster than a jog. Mental tricks appear totally inadequate to mobilize the legs, yet when the finish line comes into sight, suddenly it is possible to lift those leaden legs and perhaps even raise a sprint. So the limiting factor is not total exhaustion of every muscle fibre; it is some barrier in the mind. This scenario vividly illustrates the machinations of Tim Noakes’ central governor.

One of the most compelling items of evidence supporting the concept of the central governor is the study of power output and muscle activation during a cycling time trial, by Kay and colleagues from Tim Noakes’ lab (Eur J Appl Physiol. 2001;84(1-2):115-21). The cyclists were required perform 6 maximal one minute sprints interspersed within a one hour time trial. Despite the cyclists’ attempts to perform to their maximum ability, power output and muscle activation decreased steadily from sprints 2 to 5. The decrease in muscle activation demonstrated that neural drive from brain to muscles was decreasing, not increasing as would be expected if the brain was acting to recruit additional muscles fibrils to compensate for the effects of fatigue. In contrast, during the 6th sprint, which was performed during the last minute of the time trial, power output and muscle activation increased significantly, similar to the pattern observed during the final sprint in endurance races.

This evidence indicates that slowing down due to fatigue is not due to reaching the limits of maximally recruited muscle fibres, but rather to a decreased recruitment of muscles by the brain. It is likely that this is a protective mechanism triggered by chemical messages released into the blood stream by stressed heart or leg muscles, or by signals from sensory nerves in the walls of blood vessels. However, the increase in neural drive to the muscles in the 6th sprint reveals that the brain does not merely act on an automatic response to signals from heart, blood vessels or leg muscles. Rather there is a computation of expected future demand that depends on input of information about future expectations from the conscious mind, as much as it does on chemical or neural messages from muscles, heart or blood vessels.

Thus our brain acts to protect us, using information from the periphery together with information from those parts of the brain that support conscious mental activity. We tinker with this mechanism at our peril. Nonetheless, it is clear from the fact that power output increased during the final sprint that under at least some circumstances, the central governor reaches a conservative decision, and we might improve performance with little risk if we could recognize when this is so, and take steps to override the governor.

However before rushing to devise schemes to over-ride the governor, it is worthwhile to look more carefully at the governor’s decisions under various circumstances. The study by Kay demonstrates that the governor acts conservatively when called upon to regulate a sprint in the midst of an endurance event. My own experience indicates that as I have grown older, my central governor also tends to act increasingly conservatively during interval training sessions. However this is not merely an issue for an aging athlete. The wily coach who announces after the eighth repetition in a planned 8 x 1Km session: ‘Well today we will make it ten’ is exploiting his knowledge that the governor tends to be conservative, in order to increase the mental toughness of his protégés.

We will return to the concept of mental toughness in a moment, but first we need to consider a common situation where the governor gets the computation wrong in the opposite direction. In endurance races, there are good physiological reasons to aim for a negative split: that is, to run faster in the second half than in the first half of the race. It is desirable to minimize the release of chemicals (calcium ions, potassium ions and muscle proteins) that indicate muscle damage, into the blood stream until as late as possible in the race to reduce the risk that the governor will order a premature shutdown. Also, in longer races where it is desirable to utilize fat as fuel, it is important to avoid premature switching off of fat metabolism by rising acidity.  However, one of the key mechanisms by which the brain prepares us for maximum performance on race day is the release of extra adrenaline. For the inexperienced athlete, this is a potential trap. The heart beats more strongly, the capillaries supplying the muscles dilate more readily and unless the athlete has the experience to rein in his or her supercharged body, he or she will set off at a profligate pace and pay a high price later.

Thus the central governor is not infallible. We can improve its reliability by providing it with more data upon which to base its computations of how much the body can safely stand under different circumstances. In fact the coach who says ‘Today we will make it ten’ after the eight repetition in the planned 8x1Km session is actually training the athlete’s governor to make a better estimate of the athlete’s capacity. Much of ‘mental toughness’ consists of establishing a preparedness to accept that a more demanding limit is achievable.

This mental toughness is closely related to self-belief. Although John Landy started the Vancouver mile as the current world record holder, he was acutely aware of the legendary final kick that Bannister had honed in training with his colleagues, Chris Brasher, Chris Chataway at Iffley Road in Oxford. As an Australian who had to travel far to participate in world class competition, Landy had limited opportunity to instill the necessary self-belief into his brain.

Training is not only a matter of increasing the efficiency of heart, lungs and muscles, but also about a program that trains the central governor to hone its judgment appropriately for the event in question – whether that be the need to produce a finely judged negative split in a marathon, or a devastating sprint in the final lap of a 5000m. Tempo runs, interval sessions, and low key races or time-trials are fertile sources of the raw the material required to train the governor.

However training the governor is not only a matter of preparing for races. It also has an important part to play is sustaining the quality of training sessions during a demanding schedule. It is commonplace to experience that sinking feeling during the warm-up for a planned tempo or interval session in the midst of a demanding schedule, that the body just cannot possibly cope with the intended pace, today. It is of course essential to evaluate the body’s complaints, but provided you have not embarked upon some unrealistic increase in training volume or intensity, and have been keeping track of recent performances to rule out the insidious development of the over-training syndrome, then the body’s anguish is probably a miscalculation by the central governor.

For me the trick that outwits the governor is banishing all thought about the intended distance of the run or the number of repetitions remaining, and focussing on running style, and on the immediate sensations from the body. Almost invariably, the sensation of lethargy diminishes. Each stride becomes an event to be savored with no thought about the number of strides remaining. Sometimes the lethargy disappears entirely; other times it persists but I am able to enjoy the sensation that comes from maintaining good form. However if the governor continues to provoke anguish, I know it is time to reformulate my goal for the session.


6 Responses to “Outwitting the governor”

  1. Fitness Program | Fitness Exercise Says:

    good article…

  2. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute. I particularly like your strategy of concentrating on the immediate sensations and forgetting what is ahead – especially in training sessions. For marathon races, perhaps not – or we’d be starting at 5k race-pace (which after tapering, would feel slow)!

    The wily coach can also use knowledge of the central governor in the opposite way. For instance, young (and not so young) runners will often “let it rip” in the last repeat if they know beforehand the session is, say, 5 x 600m. The coach might not want the athlete to run into heavy anaerobic territory so he/she says “we’re going to run 600s and I’ll let you know when to stop”.

    Thanks for your comment on the “RS scale”. I’m sure it does change over time, and varies greatly from individual to individual. I did have a HR monitor in my 30s, but didn’t use it all the time. I can remember running half marathons in 82-83 mins at an av HR of 168, so that would be an RS value of 657. My ultimate goal now would be to run about 94 mins, which would be at a HR of 150, so that would be an RS value of 668. I know a female runner my age with a high HR who would run about 86 mins at a HR of 175, so that would be an RS value of 713.

  3. rick Says:

    Great article again, very thought provoking!
    How about an article on weight and effects on running performance
    Predicted effect of weight change

    * weight v performance chart

  4. rick Says:


  5. canute1 Says:

    Rick,Thanks for that link. The question of weight is an interesting one because in some circumstances, it offers the possibility of improved performance by appropriate adjustment of nutrition and level of activity. Averaged across many individuals, it is true that energy cost of running is proportional to weight. Therefore weight loss might be expected to result in lower energy cost of running at a given speed, and therefore faster times for a given energy consumption. However, there are many factors associated with weight change that can affect the relationship between body weigtht, the energy cost of running and performance, so the question of whether an individual’s performance is likely to improve after weight loss depends on these other factors as well. The picture is complex and but I will do a more detailed blog on m own understanding of the issues in the near future.

  6. rick Says:

    Thanks i look forward to that!
    Here is a video you might find useful in your quest to reduce injury, its called D-FLEX, its said to inprove energy return but for me the main benefit is reduced impact and it completly removes the stress on my calf muscles!
    Give it a try, maybe start with 5 mins and slowly increase the time you run with D-flex.
    after running a very hard hill race i was very impressed with the lack of aches or pains in my legs or body!

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