Train the Brain

AJWs TaproomAfter the thought-provoking discussion that ensued following last week’s Taproom column, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out my well-worn, dog-eared copy of Dr. Tim Noakes classic tome, “Lore of Running.” I was particularly interested in re-reading the sections in which he discusses what he calls the “Central Governor Model” in his exploration of individual runner performance at various distances.

In the course of the discussion and in the context of the research, Noakes makes the point that one can easily extrapolate runner performances across the distances based on individual runner times and speeds at relatively short distances. However, as he notes, the onset of fatigue and the general slowing that takes place for certain runners, regardless of genetic predisposition, after about four hours of running leads one to believe that the brain may play a part in deflecting the onset of fatigue after approximately four hours and certain runners therefore are able to perform at or near capacity regardless of their genetic predisposition long after the four hour mark. Thus, the key question is, can we train our minds to perform when our bodies want us to stop?

If you’ve ever been to a 100-mile race and watched runners struggle in and out of aid stations while thinking and talking about dropping out you have likely heard about sour stomachs, trashed quads, blistered feet, and, perhaps most often, just full-on physical and mental fatigue. A runner friend of mine once told the aid station guy at Wasatch his reason for dropping was “loss of will” and many other folks I know have stopped short of 100 miles simply because they ran out of gas. The question becomes, is that “gas” physical or mental?

One of the most interesting things to look at in ultramarathon running and racing is the way in which individual race performances vary from runner to runner and from distance to distance. In particular, experience suggests that while excellent performance at sub-100 mile distances is usually an effective predictor of excellent performance in the 100-mile distance there are many examples of runners who, while they cannot keep up with their peers in 50 mile and 100 kilometer races, somehow successfully pull ahead of those same competitors in the last 20 miles of 100 mile races. One potential reason for this could be that these slower runners have more well-trained Central Governors and their brains are able to successfully hold off fatigue better than their faster counterparts.

The Central Governor Model suggests that while certain biological and physiological factors are clear and measurable markers of potential success in ultramarathon racing, the longer the distance of the event the more likely the brain, and in particular, the way in which the individual runner’s brain has been trained to suppress fatigue, becomes a factor in success. In this context, the question we need to ask is how do we train the brain to effectively combat fatigue?

In addressing ultrarunning’s “Holy Trinity” the methods are clear. For our quads we hammer the downhills, for our feet we toughen them up and strengthen the little bones and muscles as much as we can, for our stomachs we keep close tabs on calories, electrolytes, and water. What then, do we do with this fourth dimension? The complex, powerful, mysterious, evolving human brain?

Maybe we should ask some of those people who pass us over the last 20 miles?:)

Bottoms up and Hoppy Holidays!


Ps. Stay tuned for next week’s column when we’ll take a break from the ultrarunning discourse and review the year in beer!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPAIn Rehoboth Beach, Delaware there sits one the East Coast’s great breweries, Dogfish Head. And, a few times a year they create the masterpiece that is 120 Minute IPA.

Not to be taken lightly, this brew is so high in alcohol one can scarcely call it beer. But, for hopheads, it is second to none. Next time they run a batch be sure to pick up a bottle or two to savor on a Saturday afternoon following a nice long run.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Do you buy into the Central Governor Model?
  • How do you train your brain to run ultras?

There are 14 comments

  1. Alex

    The short answer is to confront one's self with challenging situations more often. This can be long runs, other races, a difficult day at work, etc. Besides the potential muscular benefits, this is a big reason I include a fair bit of hard (and suitably short) running and racing in my schedule. There are always times during the second mile of a 5K run at threshold, or the third lap of a mile repeat, that your brain screams to stop. Repeated exposure calluses us, however, and that pain becomes a necessary crucible for the success we seek.

  2. Sniffer

    "become friends with pain, and you will never be alone"

    I read this on a sign at my first 50K and it has become a mantra while I ride out the low spots on a run. I feel that the mind is one of the most often overlooked "variable" out there.

  3. Patrick Stewart

    Great post, AJW. And great beer choice.

    I think I'm in the majority with my belief that mental "toughness" plays a huge role in ultra success. That being said, I'm about to head out for a long run in the cold, wet snow for some early season hardrock training. I don't think I'm a naturally gifted runner, so it's kind of cool to think that this mental toughness might make up for my lack in pure talent.

  4. Antirabbit

    it is well known that along with physical training, the brain will learn to release protective hormones that will allow you to push the limits far past what an untrained brain will allow. Much like we train our bodies, our minds perception of what our bodies are experiencing can be taught to perform well past what our natural baseline abilities are. Again, we are not all made equal in this regard, but training your mind to push the body is something that can be improved regardless of natural ability. The brain is an amazing organ.

  5. AJW

    Hey everyone, thanks so much for the great comments. Especially on this holiday weekend!

    JB, you have, no doubt, received a Phd in suffering and you have much to show for that.

    Jill, really compelling points, especially in the context of the Great Equalizer. Kouros, Trason, Pharr-Davis…has a nice ring to it…

    I have, obviously, long been interested in what it takes to go beyond the beyond. Sure, there are theories and concepts but, in the end, it's the experiences that tell the stories and teach the lessons. And, in this world of long distance running, experience really is everything!

  6. Ben Nephew

    Great topic, Andy.

    I think the Central Governor Theory is a useful model, but it needs to be placed in the proper context with ultras. The evidence supporting this model does not negate the immense physiological challenges of ultra running. Even if someone can continue to move but still drops out, that does not mean that they stopped because their central governor was lacking. Personality traits surely come into play. One person cannot determine the physiological state of someone by looking at them.

    For JB at Barkley, his training probably had physiological as well as benefits to his personal governor. The resulting physiological gains would result in his governor being less activated than in someone who is not as fit.

    The objective of training should be to get to the point that you can handle your goal pace as long as possible without the need to try and override your governor.

    The governor theory does not exist in a vacuum independent of physiology.

    I have a hard time trying to think of a reason why slower runners would have an enhanced central ability to endure fatigue if all other variables were controlled. Is the observation of slower runners doing better at 100 miles confounded by ultra experience, focus on 100 milers, etc.? The inherent variability in trail 100 milers is surely going to result in a weaker correlation between speed and 100 mile success as compared to the strong correlation between road 10k and marathon times, so maybe it is a statistical issue.

    In terms of training the brain to combat fatigue, be careful what you wish for. Sure, holding pace when you have somewhat low blood sugar may not be that risky, but what about when the governor is on due to more serious physiological signals. Actually the blood sugar example may be a bad example, as Anton got into a bit of trouble at Leadville in 2010 due to his ability to keeping pushing despite an inadequate caloric intake. An extreme example of the risks of being able to run through the governor would be Alberto Salazar, who now seems to preach do what I say, not what I did.

    One peripheral issue that is relevant is pacers. Does anyone know why European races don't have pacers? I've always wondered about that. The fact is that no pacer can know how you feel, but don't most feel obligated to encourage you on, since that is the entire purpose they are there? Pacers seem to pose a good amount of risk for highly motivated runners.

    So how do you train your brain to run ultras? The examples people have suggested so far strongly support the theory that there is a great deal of overlap in the best physical and mental training practices. I was highly influenced by reading about Khalid Khannouchi doing 20-23 mile long runs at very close to marathon race pace with the last 1-2 miles on the track at 4:25 pace. I'm pretty sure those types of workouts have both mental and physical benefits.

  7. OOJ

    An ultra race – especially a hundred-mile – is less about racing and more about surviving. And whether anyone cares to believe or admit it, the ability to run hard and fast late in the race is LESS about training, and more about *survival*.

    I encourage any ultra runner to read, "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales.

    Written as a culmination of personal and academic research into psychology and neurophysiolgy of survivors, he identifies the key elements – both physical and mental – to "champion survivors". He recounts tales of doomed mountaineers, hikers, rafters, and his own father in WWII to identify key factors in "champion survivors".

    The central theme is the balancing of the logical forebrain with the emotional mid-brain – "the jockey and the horse", as Gonzales puts it. Expert survivors are those whose "jockeys" can skillfully harness the power of "the horse". Those who do not tend to let that emotional horse run roughshod and into the ravine!

    An interesting example: the forebrain's need for "something to do", or *a pattern*. Very often, this involves mantras, chants, or even singing. As such, it was of zero surprise to me that, in the "Notes in the Margin" in the July issue of UltraRunning, that it was observed that Killian Jornet was found singing to himself as he climbed to Devil's Thumb at WS 2011.

    He dominated, it seems, not in spite of the singing; but because of it.

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