Train the Brain

AJW looks into the Central Governor Model and ponders its possible effect on ultrarunners.

By on December 23, 2011 | Comments

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?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.