I’m sure most of you are familiar with the term METCON (short for metabolic conditioning). Have you ever noticed that it’s easy to come out the gates and give 100% during round 1, while you struggle to push through rounds two and three? Yet, somehow during the final round with the end in sight, you are able to up your pace to that similar of round 1. Why is this? Shouldn't each round get a little more difficult as your fatigue increases? This is also common in that last 100 meters of your 400 meter sprint, the final mile in your 5k, etc. Enter “The Central Governor Theory”.
Recently, I have gotten hooked on the Jocko Podcast. In last week’s episode there was a short discussion of the “Central Governor Theory” which peaked my interest. Let’s dive in! “The central governor theory (CGT) proposes that afferent sensory information from the heart, but also perhaps from the brain and respiratory muscles, informs the brain of any threat that hypoxia or ischaemia may develop in those organs. In response, the central governor acts via the motor cortex to reduce the efferent neural activation of the exercising muscles, thereby reducing the mass of muscle that can be recruited and, hence, reducing the exercise intensity that can be sustained. The existence of peripheral governors in skeletal muscle and heart is proved by the rapidly deleterious effects of ischaemia on contractile function of both the heart and skeletal muscles and the existence of the condition of myocardial hibernation” (Noakes, 2001).
In layman's terms this means that the brain will override your physical ability to run/lift and shut the body down before you’re able to do serious or permanent damage to yourself. Once your brain realizes you will not die if you pick up the pace because the “finish line” is in sight, it opens the biological pathways to push harder/faster. This isn't to say that the physiological demands of the workout are not real. Rather, the CGT posits that a workout is a balance between physical preparation and biological systems, emotional components (such as motivation and pain tolerance), and self-preservation. The exact combination of these factors is what leads to how hard you’re able to push during a workout, race, game, etc.
Now that we understand what the Central Governor Theory is, is there a way to circumvent it? In short, the answer is “no”. However, “you can improve your ability to tolerate physical discomfort and prepare your mind for the physical demands you plan to place in it” (Gaudette). This is where the old adage “mind over matter” plays a role. The problem that most people have is that the experience of trying to push themselves beyond their limits when their mind is telling them it can’t go faster does not occur in their everyday workout. Instead, it occurs on game day, at the race, etc. The average person gets to a certain fatigue level in their workout or run and then calls it a day. This is great for building your physiological systems, but does nothing to teach you how to push the central governor and prove to your brain that you can in fact lift more or run faster, despite how bad you might feel. This is where elite athletes like Matt Fraser are able to distinguish themselves from others, by how hard they push themselves both mentally and physically in their training. “Training the brain allows it to understand what’s possible”. If you have to ask yourself, “have I pushed myself hard enough today?” then the answer is “no”. Go get some.
Gaudette, Jeff. “Mind over Matter? The Central Governor Theory Explained.” Runners Connect, 1 Feb. 2018, runnersconnect.net/central-governor-theory/.
Noakes, Timothy D., et al. “Evidence That a Central Governor Regulates Exercise Performance during Acute Hypoxia and Hyperoxia.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 27, no. Supplement, 1995, doi:10.1249/00005768-199505001-00038.