The Central Governor Hypothesis – How You Are Physically Limiting Yourself
If you have ever engaged in any high energy cardio workouts or gone for a run, then you will be familiar with the fatigue that inevitably sets in, usually sooner than you would like. The amount of time a person can carry on until fatigue sets in varies from person to person, and you have probably noticed that after you kept your exercise routine up for some time, your endurance got better and it took longer for that exhaustion to hit you.
But, what if you were not actually overtired, and that exhaustion you felt was simply your brain telling you to slow down so as not to over exert yourself? According to Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, a process exists in the brain that controls how much physical activity you can undertake in order to protect your heart from overexerting itself.
This proposed process is called the Central Governor and, if true, could mean that the concept of mind over body is more real than you might have previously thought. Noakes believes that the Central Governor limits the amount of exercise a person can do by reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibers, which causes a feeling of extreme fatigue.
Although Noakes’ hypothesis about the central governor was initially proposed in 1997 to explain why athletes feel such exhaustion after running a marathon, it has since been applied to other cases of extreme fatigue.
Noakes was not the first to propose this idea, as in 1924 a similar concept was suggested by the Nobel Prize winner Archibald Hill. He was of the opinion that there is a mechanism in the body that regulates a high degree of saturation within the blood, thus acting as a “governor.”
Hill’s hypothesis was disregarded, however, and researchers turned to other evidence suggesting that exercise fatigue is caused by failure of the muscles due to inadequate oxygen, lactic acid build-up or lack of energy in the overworked muscles.
The Central Governor hypothesis remains controversial to this day and has received much criticism within the scientific community for going against commonly accepted scientific theories such as peripheral “limitation” or “catastrophe.”
Noakes’ teachings have already attracted a following, however, and a number of trainers have begun adopting his theories in their training methods, ignoring conventional wisdom about things like drinking large amounts of water during marathons and consuming additional carbohydrates beforehand.
Running coach and author of “Brain Training for Runners,” Matt Fitzgerald, is a firm believer in the power of mind over body, and uses training methods that are aimed at the brain rather than the body. Fitzgerald believes that when his trainees complain of tired muscles, what they are really experiencing is a signal from their brain that is telling them to slow down.
In his training, he tries to help people to move beyond that and push through despite the signals they are receiving from their brain. The goal of this type of training is to get the brain to adapt, because as you push yourself harder, your brain will begin to see that the body can survive the tough conditions and you will slowly begin to evolve and improve past your initial limitations.
According to the Central Governor theory, pushing your body past its “limit” does not put you at risk of depleting your body’s resources, because the brain tells your body to slow down long before the muscles have run out of energy or oxygen.
A number of physiologists disagree with this, however, stating that although the brain does play a role in the body’s endurance levels, there is only so much oxygen the body can take in during exercise, and pushing on when the muscles are not receiving enough oxygen could be dangerous.
In a related study that was carried out at the University of Zurich, researchers found that there does in fact appear to be a direct link between muscle fatigue and the brain. The researchers discovered a mechanism in the brain that seems to prevent the muscles from performing past the body’s physiological limit.
During the study, a group of volunteers was asked to perform repeated thigh contractions until they felt they could not muster the strength to continue. While they performed their thigh contractions, the scientists measured the nerve impulses from the muscles. They found that when the volunteers performed these exercises under spinal aesthesia, the signals from the brain became weaker and the volunteers were able to carry on longer.
In another part of the same study, the scientists found that certain inhibitory impulses from the brain are regulated through the insular cortex. The scientists monitored the activity between the brain and the muscles while the subjects cycled.
They found that the activity greatly increased and became more intensive as the subjects’ fatigue intensified, showing that the neuronal system informs the brain, which allows the brain to regulate how much physical activity a person can undertake at one time.
Whether or not the Central Governor is the sole reason that intense physical exercise causes your muscles to throw in the towel is not yet known, but this study clearly shows that there is a link between physical activity and the brain.
So, if you want to evolve and see your endurance levels increase rapidly, then it is important that you learn to push yourself a little harder with every training session. Your body will begin to adapt to its newly found abilities and those signs of fatigue will come later.
This may not seem like anything new to experienced athletes, after all, every professional knows that you have to train regularly and intensively in order to attain and maintain the highest possible level of fitness.
But, many newbies start a fitness regime with high hopes, only to find themselves disappointed when they don’t attain the promised results. Why? Because they are operating within their physical limitations rather than pushing harder and getting stronger.
Of course, you shouldn’t go overboard and train till you pass out. But, if you learn to recognize that you actually have a lot left to give when your brain begins sending you those initial signals of fatigue, you will find that your body is capable of doing far more than you ever thought was possible.
Image by Randy Le’Moine Photography