The last time you finished a race, did you feel completely spent, like you couldn’t go a step farther unless your life depended on it?
While exercise science has long argued our ability is limited by physical factors, like the amount of oxygen we’re capable of using at peak exercise (VO2 max) or muscular failure, a growing body of evidence suggests our brains may actually be the final dictator in how fast we can go.
“It has to be the brain that regulates exercise performance, as opposed to muscles or heart limiting exercise,” says exercise science professor Tim Noakes. Noakes, who has written books on running, first authored a theory called the central governor model, which argues the brain regulates the body, in essence forcing us to slow down so we don’t die. In scientific terms, the brain interprets physical signals from the body to maintain homeostasis. So while we won’t likely be running a half-marathon, the physical signals we’re sending our brain make it think we might, so our central governor kicks in.
Of course, performance is a combination of physical and psychological factors. “[The mental part] is definitely not the be all, end all,” says Jeff Gaudette, head coach at RunnersConnect. If your central governor suddenly turned off, you might be able to run yourself to death, but you still wouldn’t be able to run a sub-two-hour marathon, he adds.
Still, the brain is powerful. Consider a few of these studies:
VO2 MAX TEST
A group of 23 cyclists did a conventional VO2 max test. On a different day, half the group repeated the same test and half did a decremental VO2 max test, where the speed started at a higher maximum than they previously reached and was decreased by 1 kilometer per hour just when the person was about to fall off, then increased again. In the decremental group, VO2 max scores increased 4.4%, while the group who repeated the traditional test had no change. Since nothing changed in the physiology, the only difference was the psychology of the test. Most interestingly, when both groups later repeated the conventional VO2 max test again, the group who had previously done the decremental test hit their higher VO2 max numbers and the other group did not. This suggests that just knowing you can go faster makes you go faster.
BIKING TO EXHAUSTION
Another study asked 10 fit male subjects to bike to exhaustion, until they literally could not maintain the required pace anymore. But then, immediately after not being able to go any farther, they were asked to do a five-second max effort. All were able to achieve a five-second effort far higher than they’d been able to cycle (supposedly to exhaustion) just seconds earlier.
RACING A RIVAL
Cyclists raced against an imaginary rival on screen, with an avatar representing their efforts. They were told the virtual cyclist was riding at the same pace as their previously tested max effort, but in fact it was pushing a wattage 2% higher. Yet, the riders were all able to keep up, finding in themselves a new max they didn’t realize they had.
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There is some dispute about the mechanism by which the brain regulates your body’s performance. While Noakes, and his colleague Andreas Venhorst, argue everything can be explained by your body’s need to adjust to maintain homeostasis, other researchers found test subjects performed better simply when looking at smiling faces instead of sad ones — and people performed worse (i.e. hit a point of exhaustion sooner) after doing mentally tiring or stressful tasks. Both have nothing to do with physically thinking we might die, but could be a result of changing the chemistry or receptors in our brain that regulate how fatigue is perceived.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOUR TRAINING?
You can either attempt to physically change the chemical point at which your brain would start to shut things down, pushing that point out, or you can learn to become more comfortable with the discomfort of that point, which trains your brain to push (through some) of the signals telling you to stop.
“We can teach ourselves mentally not to shut down,” says Adrienne Taren, a PhD candidate in neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh who is studying how brains react to stress.
Taren points to some interesting work using cognitive exercises before or during physical activity to make the anterior cortex more stress- or fatigue-resistant. You can try something similar by putting your brain under a cognitive load, she says, with brain games or anything mentally monotonous and fatiguing during or before your workouts. The workouts will be perceived as harder, but you may eventually change the receptors or brain chemistry.
The more conventional method is to do repeated hard workouts to learn how to deal with them. With repeated training, your brain adapts and “the alarm bells go off later,” says Venhorst.
“Repeated exposure to the homeostatic challenges accordingly should teach the brain that it is survivable,” says Venhorst. “Over time, these also contribute to up-regulate set points and delay aversive responses to the same stimulus.”
To do this, Gaudette recommends doing “hammer intervals.” He has his athletes do a workout where a few intervals before the final interval, he’ll ask them to go as hard as they can, so they think they can’t do anymore, and then they have to find a way to do more. For example, if you’re doing 12 x 400m, on run number 10 go as hard as you can; hammer it. The last two will feel very hard, but you’ll get through them.
Gaudette also recommends racing more frequently because “the more you race, the more you condition your brain to know you’re running hard and you’re not going to die.” Pace yourself appropriately, since running way too hard too early will cause your central governor to kick in since you subconsciously will think there’s no way you can make it at that pace. And you’d probably be right.