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 31 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.

    1. Jim S

      I tend to agree Alex, having found myself most uncomfortable trying to get through the last mile of a 5k or in the midst of a hard interval session at the track. Those moments seem to require the most attention to holding the mind in check.

    1. Ally

      "Training to go faster when you're feeling good can get you a couple of seconds per mile. Training for the times you're feeling terrible can get you a couple of minutes per mile."

      An inaccurate quote from someone, possibly Geoff Roes.

  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. Seamus Foy

    That Dogfish 120 Minute is deliciously brutal! I had 2 in 1 hour with a friend who I had not seen in way too long. I was so caught up in conversation that I didn't pay much attention to the beer. I was hammered–from 2 beers! Perhaps my Central Governor held off recognition of my increasing intoxication until I got up to pee!

  5. Joe

    Other runners ask me about intervals and I've told them I don't do them to make me faster, but to make me get used to running fast even when I feel like horses##t.

    1. Matt Lutz

      Can't agree more. I tell people the same thing when I talk to them about back-to-back (-to-back) long runs. Main reason: getting used to running hard, long, etc. while you're physically thrashed.

  6. 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.

  7. Wyocapt

    Now I have another point to ponder laying awake at night wondering if my misery to the finish line was the result of a failure to impose my will on the elevation, weather, terrain, and distance OR if I simply lost the battle with myself. Great topic and post.

  8. Jonathan Basham

    Great discussion Andy and an excellent choice in brew. I have yet to try the 120 minute but absolutely love the 90 minute by dogfish head.

    I attended the Barkley Marathons for about 12 years not as a competitor but rather as a handler and supporter for Andrew Thompson, David Horton and other ultrarunning greats. You could say that I became a student of the event. And the most important thing that I learned during those years was the power of the mind. Rarely, if EVER, did any one runner quit because they physically could not go on. They quit simply because they did not WANT to go on. Learning this was, without doubt, the key to my success at the Barkley. My training for Barkley consisted of putting myself in the most undesireable, miserable, and uncomfortable scenarios so that I would become familiar with being uncomfortable. The body can be in peak condition, but if the mind is allowed to lose focus of the task at hand, the race is over.

  9. Endurancejunkie (Dea

    Some interesting central governor stuff…

    From the site:

    Diane Van Deren is one of the best ultra-runners in the world, and it all started with a seizure. In this short, Diane tells us how her disability gave rise to an extraordinary ability.

    For Diane Van Deren, a charming mother of three, daily life is a struggle. But as soon as she steps outdoors, she's capable of amazing feats. She can run for days on end with no sleep, covering hundreds of miles in extreme conditions. Reporter Mark Phillips heads to Colorado to get to know Diane, and to try to figure out what makes her so unstoppable.

  10. Jacques

    One of my Ultra mentors once told me that when things get really ugly he puts the hammer down and the adrenalin will make you forget everything else. The body does have to be able to respond, but it really worked in my younger days.

  11. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    This is something that I have long believed: Distance is the ultimate equalizer. Over long enough distances, specific training and genetic predisposition take a back-seat to willpower and self-perpetuated mind games. Most "ultra" distances are still too short to test this theory, and very few people try to race "ultra ultra" distances (I am thinking of Fastest Known Times on trails such as the AT, PCT, and CDT, the 1,100-mile Iditarod race, and maybe to some extent the 200-mile Tour des Geants and 350-mile ITI.) But especially when you consider the prospect of "racing" for 40+ days on something like the Appalachian Trail — superior fitness is only going to get you so far. Managing pain, avoiding injury and forcing oneself to keep moving counts for a lot more.

    Even if these types of efforts had a larger participation rate (at least as large as your typical 100-mile trail race), I would argue that any person, man or woman, who is reasonably fit has just as good of a chance of winning as any "elite" runner in the field. It's the smartest runner, not the "fastest," who stands the best shot of finishing, and thus finishing first.

  12. 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!

  13. firstultra@40

    Being new to ultras and relatively new to running in general, I find that I deal more with the mental aspect of my running than the physical. Perhaps I am familiar with the physical aspect of exercise and so I don't think quite as much about it.

    In terms of the brain, all I know is that the longer my runs get and the more experiences I have with pain or pleasure on those runs, the more in tune I become with my body.

    So far, my take on the mental aspect of sports in general, is that no two people are alike, and although we can learn from one another, there are things that you just have to experience in order to understand. This is how we train our brains. Just run! :-)

  14. 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.

    1. Brett

      "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."

      That sounds like Mike Wardian's regular training/racing schedule.

  15. Dan

    I read a study (can't remember where) that showed the simple act of swishing an electrolyte solution and then spitting it out enabled group A to run farther than group B. They didn't drink it, they hardly absorbed it, yet their brain (mind?) was influenced and performance bettered. Score one for the central govenor!

    1. Ben Nephew

      That is one of the coolest studies I've ever seen. The wild thing was that there was no effect with a no calorie saccharin solution, it had to have some sort of carb.

  16. nvrdone1


    This is the CENTRAL SCRUTINIZER…it is my responsibility to enforce all the laws

    that haven't been passed yet. It is also my responsibility to alert each and every one of

    you to the potential consequences of various ordinary everyday activities you might be

    performing which could eventually lead to The Death Penalty (or affect your parents'

    credit rating). Our criminal institutions are full of little creeps like you who do wrong things…

  17. Lee

    Seems to be some confusion over Noakes' concept of Central Governor Model of fatigue. He's referring to the central nervous system (vs peripheral muscle). It's not a conscious thing you can control. I believe the key to building your resistance to central governor driven fatigue is it's anticipatory nature. So Jonathan's point about maintaining focus is spot on. I agree with Maffetone re the no pain no gain mentality. Jill, I like your point re smarts. Trashing yourself to blindly build toughness is macho but stupid. Doing it to train your brain to hold things together until you reach your target distance is smart. Either increasing pace within same distance or holding same pace for specific increases in distance. In a sense it's the value of experience. And that, as AJW says, is everything.

    AJW: interested in your comment re CGM and your 7 straight top 10 WS. Bet your CG allowed you to do more having such experience.

    PS: Love the Dogfish Head stuff too. Try Dulle Teve from Belgium, she's a wicked MB.

  18. 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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