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How our mind slows us down

How our brain slows us down….and why that is a good thing

Before we start getting really practical about how to master the mental game, I think it’s important to have one more look into the theory behind performance, and how our own mind slows us down. 


For decades, the science of sport was dominated by the idea that biochemicals (such as lactate) cause fatigue or exhaustion. In this theory, lactate keeps on accumulating in your body until it reaches a point that your body can’t go anymore. Like a car that is out of fuel: game over.

 

However, most of us understand that running is more than that. It’s more than simply the movement of limbs via the contraction of muscles. What causes fatigue? Why does running sometimes feel so easy and comfortable, while at other times it’s a big struggle?

The first scientist to come up with a performance theory that incorporates the mind was South African sport scientist Timothy Noakes, author of the book ‘Lore of Running’.

 

The Olympic marathon

Noakes watched the 1996 Olympic Games men’s marathon, which was won by South-African runner Thugwane, who beat Lee from South-Korea by just three second. After the finish, Noakes was surprised to see both runners do a victory lap, while running.


This puzzled Noakes. How could his knowledge about physiology explain that both runners, especially the number two, were able to run around after the finish? At the Olympic level, we can assume that all athletes are extremely motivated. The South-Korean runner must have tried really hard to win the race. He did not give the victory away. In those last kilometers, he really couldn’t go any faster. According to everything Noakes knew about physiology, Lee should have collapsed at the finish line. What explains that this did not happen and that Lee could still do a victory lap?

 

Noakes and his colleagues started doing research into this and found out that there were several other phenomena that could not be explained in the traditional way. For example, the fact that many athletes slow down at some point in a race, but are able to accelerate again towards the end (the finishing sprint). As a result of his research, Tim Noakes came up with the Central Governor Theory.

 

The Central Governor Theory

Noakes’ Central Governor Theory claims that fatigue is not something catastrophic, in a way that it builds up and leads to a moment of total collapse, but something that is regulated by the brain. Our brain controls everything that happens in our body, including the working of our muscles and our heart. When we exercise, the first priority of our brain is to protect “whole body homeostasis”[i]. This basically means: make sure that we don’t die and that there is enough oxygen available for our heart and our brain itself. In order to do that, our brain monitors everything that is going on in our body.

When our brain (the central governor), based on feedback from our body, realizes we are getting in the ‘danger zone’, it slows us down.

It reduces our cardiac output (how much blood our heart pumps around) and the amount of muscle fibers that are being used. At that point we start to slow down.  

 

According to Noakes, the fatigue that we feel is only indirectly related to physiological and biochemical phenomena, such as lactate, muscle damage and a rising core temperature. What matters most is how our brain interprets these signals. And what it then does to protect us from damaging ourselves. It’s mostly a sub-conscious process and we can’t override this. Or more precisely; we can learn to come closer to our physiological maximum, but our brain will always pull the handbrake before it gets dangerous.  

 

Alex Hutchinson describes it well in his bestseller Endure: “You can hit the wall with a heart rate well below max, modest lactate levels, and muscles that still twitch on demand.[…]What matters in many cases is how the brain interprets these distress signals. […]Brain and body are fundamentally intertwined, and to understand what defines your limits under any particular set of circumstances, you have to consider them both together.”[ii]

The Central Governor Theory was the first theory that could explain why, during long exercise we generally recruit only 35-50% of our muscle mass and during maximal exercise only about 60%.

If our brain would allow us to recruit all our muscle fibers, we would probably break our own bones. Plus, recruiting all muscle fibers, would put a lot of extra pressure on our heart too, because it would have to supply oxygen-rich blood to all those muscle fibers.

 

The altitude paradox explained

For long scientists have wondered why we recruit even less fibers when we are training at high altitude. And although our heart rate tends to be higher at altitude compared to sea level, our maximal heart rate is actually lower. The same counts for lactate: during most of our runs at high altitude, we will have a higher level of lactate in our blood. But our maximal lactate levels are lower.


With the Central Governor Theory in mind, this starts to make sense. At high altitude, it’s much harder to absorb the oxygen in the air. Contrary to what many people belief, the concentration of oxygen in the air at high altitude is similar to that at sea-level. However, the air pressure is lower, which makes it harder for our lungs and blood to absorb and use the oxygen. So our brain being the central governor, will do wise to ‘shut down’ some of our muscle fibers, to make sure that the smaller amount of oxygen in our body, is being used for the functions that are most important, such as our brain function.

 

Does it all come down to: How bad do you want it?

Noakes’ believe that we normally don’t reach our true maximum, was confirmed by Samuele Marcora from the Endurance Research Group at the University of Kent (U.K.). Marcora is one of the world’s lead scientists in the field of sport psychology. His research has contributed a lot to our knowledge of how our mind impacts our performance.

 

In one of his experiments, he asked ten rugby players to do a time-to-exhaustion test (TTE) on the bike[iii]. During a TTE participants cycle at a certain fixed wattage, often 70-80% of their maximum. They are asked to cycle on that fixed wattage as long as they possibly can[iv]. In this experiment the fixed wattage was on average 242 W. When these rugby players stopped cycling because of total exhaustion, their heart rate and lactate levels were very high. They said they gave it their all. At that point of total exhaustion, Marcora asked them to do a maximal power test of seven to eight seconds. On that moment, immediately after giving up on their time-to-exhaustion test, they were able to deliver an average of 731 W. Much higher than the 242 W they were cycling on when they stopped. Clearly, the rugby players did not have to stop, they decided to stop.

 

Based on his experiments, Marcora came up with his own theory, the psychobiological model. In Marcora’s model, just like in the Central Governor Theory, fatigue originates in the brain. The main difference with Noakes is that Marcora sees fatigue as a mostly conscious and voluntary decision to slow down. Fatigue, in his psychobiological model, is based on a combination of effort and motivation. We stop or slow down, when we experience the effort as our absolute maximum, or as the maximum we are willing to give, based on our motivation.  

 

There are many factors that can impact our sense of effort. Heat is one of them (in hot weather, the same training takes more effort). Being mentally tired is another one. Whatever increases our sense of effort, slows us down. Our performance is also affected when we lack motivation. This is something we are all familiar with. When we are highly motivated, we are able and willing to push ourselves harder. Maybe you have noticed this during the corona outbreak? Without having any races in the foreseeable future, many runners felt a lack of motivation, which resulted in not being able to reach their normal training times. Suddenly doing 8 x 1000m felt a lot harder, since there was nothing to motivate us.

 

My take on how the brain impacts our performance

Which theory is correct? The Central Governor Theory from Noakes in which the brain is the master controller, which controls our effort in an unconscious way and which can hardly be overruled? Or the psychobiological model from Marcora which focuses more on voluntary control, in which motivation and effort play a key role? The truth is that the two theories complement each other.

 

This is how I look at it. First of all, our body definitely wants to protect itself from serious harm. Note that in my diary ‘the body’ also includes psychological, emotional and neural factors, in other words, the body also includes the brain. So what does our body do to protect us? It makes sure that the more we push ourselves, the more fatigued we feel. When we run hard our body gets hotter, we produce lactate, we get muscle damage and so on. It makes sense that most athletes experience this fatigue as unpleasant. The physiological and biological effects of exercise have a direct effect. Muscle fibers that are damaged, don’t work that well anymore. If we would test our maximal power at the end of a marathon, it’s going to be lower than before the race, no matter how hard we try.  Next to this direct effect, there is also an indirect effect caused by feelings of fatigue.


Here Marcora’s theory comes into play. The more motivated we are, the more we are willing and able to override fatigue. Partly it’s about “how bad do you want it?[v]” Your level of motivation is extremely important. It’s not everything, but it’s what starts everything else. Perception of effort is also important and this can be influenced by what we have done before our workout or race, as well as what happens and what our mindset is during the run. Overruling the signs of our body, that try hard to slow us down, is possible. But only when we combine a high level of motivation with having the right mental tools.


However, there is a point where even the best, most motivated and mentally strongest elites will stop or slow down. We generally don’t see Olympic athletes fainting after the finish line, let alone dying. Whether we are super motivated or not, we won’t be able to recruit 90% of our muscle fibers at the end of a race if that can help us to win. Only the Central Governor Theory addresses this in the correct way. There is a point where we just can’t go anymore, even if we try really hard, because our body protects itself – and we have to thank it for that.

Now, the goal of every runner (apart from simply getting physically fitter) is to learn to control the brain, so that we can override it and come closer to our true maximum.

There’s different ways of doing that, most of it backed by science. Exercises, such as meditation, visualization and self-talk are proven ways that help us control our mind.


In the following blogs I will discuss those different mental tools. Together, they are the key to improving our performance.


Instagram: @running_coach_hugovandenbroek



References

[i] A lot of information in this blog comes from the following article: Timothy David Noakes (2012): Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis”. Frontiers in Physiology, volume 3, article 82.

[ii] Alex Hutchinson, “Endure. Mind, body and the curiously elastic limits of human performance”. William Morrow, New York, 2018. This quote is a combination of three different sentences, taken from pages 9 and 15.

[iii] Samuele Maria Marcora, Walter (2010). The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle? European Journal of Applied Physiology, 109: page 763 - 770

[iv] So during a time to exhaustion test a longer time corresponds with a better performance. During a time trial, it’s the opposite: the distance is fixed, so a lower time means a better performance.

[v] Matt Fitzgerald wrote a book about this, titled ‘How bad do you want it’.

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