Your Brain as the Central Governor – Interview with Dr. Tim Noakes

Dr. Tim Noakes*[Audio Content Available For Members Only. Click Here to Join Now]

Dr. Tim Noakes is a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

He has completed more than 70 marathons and ultra-marathons and is the author of Waterlogged, Running Injuries, Challenging Beliefs, and the Lore of Running.

The Lore of running (900 pages) is the first running book Trevor bought me before we started the MTA podcast. I have kept it by my reading chair for reference ever since. It is worth its weight in gold.

While we had Dr. Noakes on the phone we were eager to talk with him about how the brain governs one’s performance in the marathon. Here’s what he had to say,

Questions for Dr. Noakes

You have done great work on the Central Governor Model for understanding fatigue in the body. For those who have never heard of it, what is the Central Governor?

When I started in the sport sciences we were taught as dogma that if you’re tired it’s because your muscles produced too much lactic acid. The lactic acid then poisons the muscles so you can’t go any faster. The assumption was, when we put an athlete on a treadmill and make him run faster and faster, he reaches a point that, though he can go a little bit faster, he doesn’t consume any more oxygen. But we could never find the so called “plateau phenomenon” where the oxygen consumption reached a plateau and didn’t rise any further. In at least 80% of our athletes, when they stopped running, the oxygen consumption was still rising. Then we studied rats, and never found one rat that stopped running when its oxygen level plateaued.

So I wondered, if it’s not the oxygen that’s limiting the athlete what could possibly be limiting him? By 1996 I decided that the brain was controlling the muscle function in some way. I knew that most people don’t die during exercise. That is, when you exercise you stay in balance no matter how hot, stressful, or high the altitude. So I decided there must be a regulator that is regulating performance and it must be in the brain.

The British Nobel laureate A.V. Hill published a study that said to prevent the heart from damaging itself we have a governor that slows the functioning of the heart, and that then slows the functioning of the muscles. But because I trained in cardiology, I knew that that’s not the way it works. The way you control the work of the heart is by controlling the work of the muscles. So if you want to protect the heart you must slow the muscles down. And then I saw it! I realized that the governor works by controlling how much muscle work you’re able to do.

Then some of my colleagues found that fatigue is purely a sensation; an emotion. It has nothing to do with what’s actually happening in your body, and it’s got lots to do with how close you are to the finish of the race. So the brain uses this emotion of fatigue to keep you within a safe pace as you run a long race.

The best evidence for it is that most sports have an end spurt (where you speed up at the end). If you were exhausted and your muscles were failing you wouldn’t be able to speed up at the end. And you do it by recruiting more muscle -so the brain should be able to recruit more muscle (anytime) but for some reason it chooses not to until you get very close to the finish. It’s the certainty that you’re going to finish that allows you to speed up at the end.

You have a pacing strategy that the brain works out in advance and it updates it with every stride. With every stride the brain has to answer four questions, “Are you going to stop, go the same speed, speed up, or slow down?”.

How important is mental training when it comes to the Central Governor?

I think all physical training in the end comes down to mental training. The interesting thing about biology is that if you train the same way every day, after about two months you are fully adapted -you don’t make any new adaptations. The only thing that you can change is your perception of what you CAN do. So the reason why you do long runs during marathon training is to convince your brain that you can do it. I think that all training has an emotional component that is terribly terribly important!

So is there anything I can tell myself when I’m out running a marathon to help get through it better?

When you have your best race you don’t even remember it. It’s like you’re in a trance. And I think that’s the state that you want to get into. But if it were so easy to get into we would do it all the time. My best marathon I don’t remember the last 10k, I was so focused. What I do know is, if you ever ask the question “Will I finish?” or any negative statement, that’s it, your race is over.

Another point is that you don’t ever have to listen to what your brain is saying to you because it’s just making up a story. So it can tell you you’re tired but you can say, “No, I’m not tired because Dr. Noakes told me that it’s just you telling me I’m tired but I’m not really tired”. 🙂

What do elite athletes tell themselves?

The very best athletes presume that they’re going to win and that’s what they’re focusing on all the time. Two Kenyans that I spoke to recently said that they see the mental effort as being greater than the physical effort in a marathon. The mental concentration -and not letting go at any moment- that’s what’s critical.



We also spoke to Dr. Noakes about hydration and high fat diets but this blog post is getting rather long. I encourage you to listen to the podcast episode all the way through.

I also highly recommend this TED talk (he talks about the central governor at the 6:50 mark). As always, I welcome your comments below.



Also Mentioned in this Episode

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This note comes from one of my coaching clients, Kathy from OH, who’s doing the DisneyWorld Dopey Challenge:

I just wanted to let you know how it’s going. I’ve finished the 5k and 10k so far. The weather has been hot and humid. Tomorrow is supposed to be super hot so thankfully it’s just the half. I’m going to take it slow and save my legs for the marathon on Sunday. I have to thank you for helping me get here. I was so worried that having 62 days to get ready for this wasn’t enough time. You helped me change my nervousness into confidence! I will never suggest someone to get ready for this race in that short of time 🙂 lol. Thanks for all you do to help build runners into strong finishers. There is no doubt in my mind that I will finish with a smile on Sunday! Kathy

Need a coach? I still have a few open spots!

3 Responses to Your Brain as the Central Governor – Interview with Dr. Tim Noakes

  1. Trevor Spencer January 12, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

    Wow! I definitely have some new tricks up my sleeve, i.e. things to tell my brain, when running my next long run.

    Gotta keep working on my mental game.

  2. Denise March 19, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

    Fascinating!
    Dr Tims work is truly eye opening. How many times have I been mid-run and been desperate to stop, yet I’ve still managed a fast finish? Plenty! And now I know why.
    An analogy if I may might be needing the bathroom yet you manage to hang on until you find a bathroom, surely that’s the central governor at work?
    I have a Marathon in 2.5 weeks time and I will have trained that brain of mine to get me a 3:45 no matter what!
    Thanks team MTA

    • Angie Spencer March 19, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

      Hi Denise. I’m glad you enjoyed this interview. Your example about the bathroom is a good one to show how we can train our mind and body. Enjoy the rest of your marathon taper and continue thinking positive thoughts. You’ve got what it takes to accomplish your goal!

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