Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Limits and the Central Governor

There are few things as dangerous as an intelligent skeptic. I've worked with Dr. Tim Noakes a few times for my Trail Running Magazine coaching column. He stands out in my mind as the preeminent skeptical sports scientist.

It's pretty clear to me that the more we know about how the body works — or just about anything for that matter — the more we realize how little we actually know.

Why is it that at the end of an ultra-marathon a runner can run 7min/miles for the last five miles, when, at mile 70 in the race they were void of this energy and walking? Nobel Prize winning physiologist Archibald Hill was the first to propose, in 1924, the idea that the heart was protected by a "governor". This went largely ignored until Dr. Noakes's research¹ in 2001 caused the idea to reemerge.

When we race, our body have no idea we are doing a competitive event. They perceives the stress of the race as a threat to it's existence. In an effort to save ourselves from death, our brains cause us to feel pain, and/or fatigue; which will slow or stop us, and save our lives. I find this topic fascinating, and I think it becomes even more applicable to ultra-runners. The longer an endurance event goes, the more it shifts from a physiological challenge to a mental one. How much are you being slowed by your central governor? Are there ways to overcome this, or is that what we already call determination?

Radiolab podcast on limits:

Has anyone out there have any good central governor stories? If so please post in the comments.

I'll leave you with Julie Moss in 1982, during just the 4th ever Ironman Triathlon,  crawling the last 10 feet of the race. "I felt my life changing."

Also check out Dr. Noakes's recent book debunking the nonsense rhetoric we've been fed by the sports drink companies. It's called Waterlogged.


Steve Pero said...

I feel that governor every day in my training now that I'm in my 60's. As a once sub 2:50 marathoner, I can remember easily cruising the roads at a sub 6mpm it's double the pace and double the effort with similar training. Oh, well...

Ben said...

Many's the time I've had to break the "governor balls" off my engine to get where I want to be in terms of speed and distance. Sometimes it has been a bad idea. Other times it has resulted in some of the best runs of my life. Currently I can't quite tell what differentiates between the two. But that's what life is about, finding out!

Note: it's pre-eminent, not per-eminent.

Andy Magness said...

Matt - we've probably met at some point as i've raced with team Yogaslackers off and on (as one of their many fourths) for a few years. I wrote similar post on Noakes and the CG theory a couple months ago - - after being referred the radio-lab piece by my dad. In has helped bring clarity to much of my own writings and feelings on the subject of ultra-endurance and the role of the mental, or as you put it, why it is the case that "The longer an endurance event goes, the more it shifts from a physiological challenge to a mental one." the CG theory explains largely why my own experiment - pushing the limits of low volume training - hasn't yet failed - why i'm able to complete multi day adventure races and other ultra endurance efforts on ridiculously little training. My belief is that i am able to overcome/argue away many of the initial performance limiters that the Governor employs and get more out of my limited fitness. Not sure how to develop this ability but i personally credit many years of hard-core climbing and mountaineering - i developed a more acutely correct sense of my actual limits (rather than the limits as perceived through the eyes of the CG) as the result of innumerable situations where actual survival required proceeding well out of my comfort zone. These days i have found that i can employ (must employ really) this ability to override the CG in my high intensity training, thus eeking more fitness out of my meager 1 hour of weekly training. And of course it now always comes into play on my long efforts (like the upcoming arrowhead 135 winter bike race) where such limited training simply can't serve to fully prepare me physically for rigors of the event the way typical high volume training programs might. Alright - i got a bit long winded.

Anyway - i've been writing and thinking and experimenting with this stuff for about 3-4 years now, researching, diligently tracking my progress, etc, with the aim of publishing something at some point. Most folks think i'm nuts but it has worked for me pretty well.

so were you with the dart crew that went to UNE last year? and then did you go to worlds as well?



Matt Hart said...

Thanks for sharing Andy. I can't wait to read what you publish on the topic. I am astonished by what you've accomplished on such minimal training. One would assume that you would end up injured on such low volume, even with control over your CG.

I haven't raced with DART since 2006. I think we might have done the '06 Primal Quest with you guys. It feels like someone else's life when I think back to it now.