What is the Central Governor?

If you ever want a comprehensive reference guide for running you should buy the book by Dr Tim Noakes - Lore of Running. This encyclopaedia sized book is one of those books that many people own but not many have read it from cover to cover as it’s so in-depth. Dr Noakes is a world leading sports scientist from South Africa who has created a lifetime body of work which has had a massive influence on not only the world of running but other sports as well. 

In 1997 Dr Noakes introduced The Central Governor Theory. The basic concept is that your brain will restrict your physical body during intense exercise once it gets to a point where it feels you maybe damaging yourself. Here’s a more detailed explanation of this theory from wikipedia: 
‘In particular, physical activity is controlled so that its intensity cannot threaten the body’s homeostasis by causing anoxic damage to the heart muscle. The central governor limits exercise by reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibres. This reduced recruitment causes the sensation of fatigue.’. 

In interviews I have listened to with Dr Noakes he expresses that he does wonder and question whether our Central Governor is the biggest limiter to performance. He talks about how once a top level runner gets to a certain point of intensity their brain starts working against them to preserve their body, this preservation is represented in pain. Their running becomes extremely hard, harder than most of us could ever imagine. It is at this moment where the runner who can delve the deepest into their inner motivation to stay in this place of pain will be the winner. Noakes feels that the person who wins is the one who needed it the most, they had more on the line so they had more motivation to push through this extreme level of pain.  

The current world record for the marathon is 2hours 3 minutes, some sports scientists argue that with our physiology humans should be able to run a marathon somewhere around 1 hour 45mins. While this is a much debated topic it does bring up the argument that we could be well off reaching our potential. Noakes will talk about how we aren’t seeing top level runners die in performances which indicates they could push harder, although a bleak thought it does show how hard our bodies work to protect our physical self but also how this could be a limiter to performance. 

You may have experienced The Central Governor in your own exercise routine. Have you ever done a race or workout where you felt there was nothing left to physically give, where every part of your body was telling you that it’s impossible to go on, that you should quit because the pain is so hard? Then suddenly something switched in your mind which gave you an increase in motivation and then you were able to push yourself physically harder. This moment shows that your body could have gone harder, that it was your mind you had to over come. 

Think about The Central Governor theory and the concept of how much you want something could have a massive influence on the level of discomfort you are willing to experience. Can you reflect back to the moments in your life where you have experienced the most discomfort and consider whether you may have been able to push through, this doesn’t just have to be about exercise, was the reason you were able to push through because the outcome you desired was something you had an ultimate need for? 

Looking back to these times what was the reward of you going to this place? Did you grow? Did you gain a deeper understanding of yourself? Did you achieve things that may have seemed impossible before they were achieved? 

Understanding The Central Governor theory has lead me to contemplate two things; 1. how do I gain knowledge of how to get through discomfort and 2. how do I find the depth of inner need that will help me find the motivation to push through the hardest moments? The answer to these questions will differ from person to person as we all have different things that drive us, but if life has taught you that a lot of value can come out of the toughest and most uncomfortable times I imagine that deep down this is a place that you have some level of desire for. 

We all need comfort, security, and certainty but we also need discomfort in certain areas. The aim should never be to remove all discomfort from our life, if we remove discomfort we remove the opportunity to explore who we truly are. This is something that top athletes are always exploring and maybe is something that is worth exploring for yourself. 


This piece orginally appeared in The Press


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Bevan Eyles