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BoxLife Magazine

The Central Governor Theory: Why your brain may be limiting your performance at the box

By William Imbo

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July 16, 2014

“Sometimes I think we forget about training our brain. We spend all of our time training our body but we forget about the brain. If you can train the brain, your body will go so much further than you think it can.”
Dani Horan on ‘Brain Training’

Have you ever finished a workout, frustrated with yourself because as you stand on the floor, tired but not spent, you realize that you could have pushed yourself harder? But you think back to the WOD itself, and are almost certain that your physical and mental capabilities were being stretched to the absolute limit. Your muscles ached, lungs burned, and you seem sure beyond any doubt that you could push yourself no harder for fear of breaking down completely. Sometimes, this really is the case, and when you do eventually complete the workout your fetal position on the floor is one of the signs that you had given that WOD your body and soul as an offering to the CrossFit gods. But there are occasions when, after whatever period of recovery seems appropriate, you stop and think to yourself, “Man, I think I could have done that a bit faster. I took some breaks that I didn’t need to. I let my head get in the way of my performance.”

This is the classic case of “mind over matter”, and leads me neatly into the topic of discussion today: the central governor theory and training your brain for athletic success.

A little over a decade ago, Tim Noakes, MD, first proposed a mechanism by which the brain mediates physical efforts. Previous theories suggested that the oxygen consumption (Vo2Max) and work output of the skeletal muscle is what dictated maximum performance. In Noakes’ view, the central governor, i.e., the brain, is what limits endurance performance by dictating exercise intensity and duration in order to ensure its own survival—that is to say, your survival. The brain requires a steady flow of nutrients and oxygen, and demands a reliable mechanism for transport (your body). Anything that might jeopardize these things will be tightly regulated, otherwise an athlete could quite literally run themselves to death by destroying skeletal or cardiac muscle, or by starving the nerve tissue of nutrients and oxygen.

Acting at various levels of subconscious, the central governor makes decisions during an athletic endeavor (like running a race) that is based upon a myriad of data, including:

  • The present effort (monitored internally by various measures)
  • The body’s current fitness
  • Previous physical and psychological experiences (training and racing)
  • The current environmental conditions (temperature, wind, humidity, terrain)
  • The task at hand (race distance, intensity, competition)

Noakes’ view is that the brain generates all the symptoms one may have during exercise, albeit them being unique to every individual and different to the symptoms someone else may be experiencing. During an interview with BULLETPROOF, Noakes goes into further detail about how the central governor theory relates to athletic performance:

“My view is that the sensations of discomfort are the way the brain regulates the performance. The symptoms are utterly, completely illusory. They are generated by the brain and they have nothing to do with the state of the body at that time. They only are related directly to how close you are to the finish.

What we’ve done is we’ve just said that exercise is a controlled behavior. It’s controlled by the brain and the control starts the instant you start the exercise, the brain has already calculated what is safe for you to do under the prevailing conditions. It then shepherds you to the finish, making sure that you don’t run into trouble.”

This is why the idea of a “central governor” is so controversial in the sports science world. After all, it sort of dismisses the established beliefs that we have held about the human body in relation to physical exertion, such as the notion that a person’s maximum oxygen intake correlates to his physiological fitness. There is even the question of whether we can truly measure our physiological limits, as they are largely controlled by an unconscious force.

So does this mean that the better athletes are the ones that don’t feel the symptoms of fatigue (for example), or don’t generate them at all? Once again, we must consider the brain’s role (i.e. the central governor) impact in this. More often than not, Noakes argues, the brain—the mental drive to win—is what separates the elite athletes from the rest of us. For example, it is a commonly held belief that Vo2 Max, the maximal oxygen consumption of an athlete, is a good predictor of performance. Noakes makes the point that Vo2 Max levels measured in the 1930s are no higher or lower than the best athletes we have today. Yet the same physiology (of runners, to Noakes’ point) today is producing performances that are far greater than they were 70 years ago. So what’s changed, if it’s not the biology? An athlete’s perception of what they can achieve.

Over the years athletes have broken records and barriers in sport that were previously thought to be humanly impossible. Sir Roger Bannister became the first person to run a sub-four minute mile in 1954. Over the next two years, 37 runners subsequently achieved the same feat. Surely there wasn’t some drastic change to the physical make-up of a runner’s body in such a short space of time. Rather, the belief of one athlete thus proved such a record could be broken, and allowed other runners, with the same training and similar physiological components, to tell their brain that a four-minute mile was indeed possible.

But one of the biggest misconceptions of the central governor theory is that if we could just teach ourselves to push harder or somehow turn off this central governor of the brain we could perform faster. But physiologically, that doesn’t quite add up. If you asked an Olympic-caliber runner to run a 7-minute mile, they could do so with ease and be able to carry that pace on for 26 miles or more with little effort. If you were to ask a four-hour marathoner to do the same, it would take an all-out effort they can only maintain for a mile. The physiological differences between these two runners means that even if the central governor was turned off, the four-hour marathoner couldn’t run with the Olympic-caliber runner. Instead, the central governor theory, as it relates to racing (Noakes’ background is as a marathon runner), is a balance between: (1) physical preparation and biological systems; (2) emotional components, such as motivation and pain tolerance; (3) and self-preservation. The exact combination of these factors is what leads to how hard you’re able to push during a race. Though the exact comparison is to running, I feel that we can break it down to revert to a CrossFit workout as well. Simply put, your performance in the WOD is dictated by three components: the physical, emotional and mental.

So the question is, can an athlete push the boundaries of their central governor to make them a better athlete? If so, how? As Noakes admits, his is an unproven hypothesis “that in the case of a close finish, physiology does not determine who wins.” The winner is the athlete who simply refuses to give up. However, if the mind was all-controlling, how does that account for the many examples of athletes’ pushing past their physical threshold and putting themselves at risk in the process? The answer may lie in those who have the ability to subdue the central governor for the longest. So how can you train yourself to do the same?

Motivation is always a good place to start—and I mean real motivation, a cause worth fighting for, so to speak. I’m not saying you should put your life at risk, but you could do say that there is an almost fanatical, insane desire for success and self-belief among the great legends of sport today. You must then follow that up by sufficient and accurate training. Say for example you wanted to compete at a huge weekend competition at a major box soon. You would obviously train as hard as you could at your own gym, pushing your boundaries each time. But you would also want to sign up for smaller competitions to truly replicate the sensations of competition. You can’t do so in a class, try as you might. Your mind will then have those memories of exertion in a competitive environment that you can fall back upon and even remind yourself of in the midst of the weekend comp. Finally, you need to work to improve your sense of pace. Pacing is one of the ways the brain self-regulates the central governor. The brain can anticipate all the known variables of a race (or WOD)—weight, time, repetitions—and then calculate an optimal pace that will get you to the finish without dying. When you deviate significantly from your optimal physiological pace, the brain reacts by reducing the level of muscle activation in order to force you to slow down. If you were to go out to fast in the workout, you central governor would kick in earlier than is needed.

It is up to you to utilize these methods to come up with a game plan that can start to influence your central governor and push what you and your brain think you are capable of—in the box and outside of it.

Photo courtesy of Arctic Warrior/CC By ND 2.0

William Imbo

About William Imbo

William Imbo is an Associate Editor at BoxLife magazine, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer and holds an MPS in Sports Industry Management from Georgetown University. He is an avid CrossFitter and loves film, music and travel, thanks to having grown up across Europe. A fan of the New Orleans Saints and Newcastle United, Will's favorite CrossFit girl is Helen-least favorite being Isabel. View all posts by William Imbo →

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