The Central Governor Theory

There’s no denying triathlon is a hard sport, and in races or hard training sessions we frequently take ourselves to the upper limits of our capabilities. When we race we tend to go as hard as we can and push to exhaustion. However, there are researchers, like exercise and sports science professor Tim Noakes, who believe no matter how hard you think you’re trying, you’ve got more to give.

The Central Governor Theory

In 1997, Noakes put forward a theory (based on previous work by Archibald Hill the 1920s) that the brain is the body’s protector, and releases pain sensations early to fool the body into believing that it’s at its limit. He proposes that if you can overcome these pain sensations, you can tap into another level of athletic capability. It appears the notion 'mind very matter' is very apt indeed.

The usual, 'old-fashioned' way of thinking is that the body tells the brain when it’s tired, such as when there’s too much lactic acid in the muscles, too little oxygen, and so on. Noakes argues that it’s the other way around. It’s pretty controversial as it dismisses long-held beliefs about human physiology. Supporters of the Central Governor Theory question whether we can ever truly measure our physiological limits, since they’re controlled by our subconscious.

There’s no question that the body reaches a certain point, energy-wise, at which it can no longer function. Think about the Ironman crawl of Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham in 1997 or Alistair Brownlee’s dramatic blow-up with 300 metres to go in the London ITU triathlon in 2010. Their bodies simply give way; physically unable to function. It appears these athletes have the ability to ignore the pain receptors screaming 'no!'; one of the reasons why they are amongst the best in the world, no doubt.

Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham in 1997

We can all push past perceived pain to some extent. When you’re in an event and nearing the finish line, it’s almost a given that you will speed up for one final flurry, even if you feel completely drained before that. The brain senses that the end is near and lo and behold, it allows a little extra energy to be released, as if by magic!

When you push your body past its limits, you can greatly endanger your health. Bear in mind that this Central Governor is no bad thing! Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that when you’re struggling, you should be able to dig a bit deeper if you keep your head strong.

Our brain keeps back a little extra energy for emergency situations, and that’s also good to know. You may have heard the story of a child being trapped under a car and their parent actually lifting the car up to free their child - Hysterical Strength. There is no way the adult could have lifted that car in any other circumstance, but by being able to do so in that split second of panic suggests the Central Governor was overruled and physical capability took over, along with a tonne of muscle damage. Muscle damage was of no concern in this instance, but it does suggest we are usually very much in our comfort zones and our pain receptors are a little too overprotective. Something to consider when we’re on our last hill rep!

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