Podcast, Psychology, Science

Psychology and the Central Governor Model with professor Tim Noakes | EP#43

 July 24, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Psychology and the Central Governor Model with professor Tim Noakes | EP#43

The Central Governor Model implies that the brain governs how hard your muscles are allowed to work in order to protect them. Thus, we never truly use the full capacity of our body.

Professor Tim Noakes is world-renowned for coming up with the theory and proving it in research studies, and joins us today to explain more.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • How big an impact the brain really has on your performance
  • What you should do to try and override the perceived barriers
  • How the balance between perception of fatigue and a willingness to take on fatigue ultimately determines how much you can push yourself


About Tim Noakes​

03:14 -

  • Originally started rowing at university before taking up running.​
  • One day he had a really good 40-minute run, and he realized that he was built for running.
  • Ran many marathons, ultra-marathons and wrote the book “Lore of Running”, the first edition of which is from 1985 with the latest edition being from 2002. This is a very comprehensive book describing the physiology and biology of running.
  • When he was teaching at the University of Cape Town, he started the Sports Science Institute where he taught the first sports science course in South Africa.
  • In 2010 he realized that the advice he had been giving about diet was wrong. He had been promoting a high-carbohydrate diet. It hurt his health such that he developed type-II diabetes, despite all the running, because of a bad family history and lots of carbohydrates.
  • So he decided to change that. And now for the last five years he has been writing and researching more about nutrition.
  • So he has come to the point where he thinks that nutrition in terms of health is critically important. Probably more important than physical activity. Physical activity is terribly important to keep you healthy but if you’re on the wrong diet it doesn’t help, of which he is a classic example.

What is the Central Governor Model all about?

05:53 -

  • I came from medicine when I started sports science, but I had absolutely no training in science. So I had no preconception of what I thought I was meant to believe.​
  • We were told that when you test someone during a maximum exercise test, their oxygen consumption will plateau. In other words, although they can run a bit faster, their oxygen consumption would not rise.
  • We found it on few people but in the majority of the people we tested it didn’t happen. And so I said that if we can’t see it then it can’t be happening. And that must mean that something other than oxygen is limiting these athletes.
  • In 1987, I wrote the first article where I questioned this whole theory. And I even showed it by going back retrospectively to A.V. Hills work about this theory, that he had never shown, that there was this plateau phenomenon. So therefore, I knew that there was something wrong with the theory.
  • Over the next period of 10 years, I came to realize that the body must be homeostatically regulated during exercise or else we all would die during exercise.
  • So I made this proposal and eventually it struck me that what we are missing in our understanding of exercise performance was that if you want to run faster or exercise harder you must recruit more muscle. And to recruit more muscle you must use your brain.
  • And therefore, I suddenly realized that the brain is in charge by regulating how much muscle you can recruit. And then we built the Central Governor Model around this.
  • Then we were able to prove this by showing that if you start people exercising in the heat or you introduce an oxygen deficient environment they’ll slow down. They’ll slow down long before they get damaged. So that showed that the system worked in anticipation. If the environment changes, your speed will change. And if your physical condition changes, your speed will also change.

In a nutshell:

"So that in a nutshell is the Central Governor Model. It says that the brain regulates performance in anticipation to make sure that you don’t harm your body."

What are some more practical, every day examples of things that may change that anticipation and regulation?

08:42 -

  • The psychological factors are more important to get to the top of your performance range.​
  • We all have a range of performances because of our genetics and the way we trained. But on top of that to make the last 1-2%, you add the psychology.
  • And in what we have been looking at more recently, it’s become very clear to us that there’s another component to it: your emotion, or how you feel about what you are doing, and how you feel about your performance. As soon as these change, your performance will either go up or down.
  • Conscious thinking has a very big part to play in performance.

What are some practical things that you can do to have that psychology affect you positively?

10:35 -

  • Once you get passed, ​there you get more mood changes which is a real issue. We had people race against each other that we matched at the start. And we found that the winner in this particular match off would act his best performance beforehand. And the guy who came second, his performance would drop by about 2% or so. So as soon as you get passed you’re in trouble. This is another issue that we don’t fully understand.
  • It is very clear that if you perceive that you’re losing for whatever reason, you’re performance considerably worsens. The elite coaches know this and this is how they produce these athletes.
  • So, I can’t offer you any suggestions but it just happens. And I think the best coaches are the ones who can extract that self-belief.
  • A lot of the training that we do is to ensure that we build our own self-belief.

Key takeaway

To add that final 1-2% to your performance you need to

  • Build self-belief
  • Keep your emotions positive
  • Consciously think about your emotions, self-belief, and how they affect your performance.​

How do you build self-belief?

12:04 -

  • Let’s take an example of a Tour de France cyclist. They do it by doing those long hills and long days. Eventually, it becomes second nature and they understand that they can do it.
  • But even among that group there’s only three or four who can actually win the race. And so they’re different in other ways that we don’t fully understand yet.​
  • I bet that if you were to look at the top 20-30 Tour de France cyclists, you couldn’t tell the difference in their biology but it’s just the difference in their desire and the way they were brought up and maybe many other factors as well.

How does this apply to the everyday athlete that is not winning? Can the perception of losing be like being behind on your target goal race pace? Would this affect your performance negatively?

12:42 -

  • Absolutely. I think that if we’re not such great athletes we’re far too concerned about performance. And your best performance is when you don’t really worry about the performance. You just go out and exercise and you do it. That’s the best way to do it.​
  • The other thing that we identified is that the point where you start to quit, where your brain starts to think that it’s not worth the effort anymore. The discomfort you’re feeling is not worth the effort you’re putting in. This is a crucial moment. We used to call this “hitting the wall.” The brain decides and you logically support that decision that the pain is too much to continue.
  • What I tell people is that you must never quit. This is the key because your brain is just playing games with you. Don’t ever quit because you’re going to regret that.
  • Secondly on that point that we’ve just raised is that you must always have secondary goals. For example, you’re not going to break 2 hours in the marathon but you can still run 2 hours 10 minutes. These secondary goals will keep you from not quitting or not having this failing brain approach.
  • The point we make is that your emotions are terribly important. And fatigue is purely an emotion that we use as an excuse. The fact that you feel you are tired doesn’t tell you that physically you’re not in condition. You don’t have to accept that. You just say, “I’m not going to quit.”

Which is more important or easier to work on, making your goal bigger which will allow you to take on more fatigue or practicing how to be able to reduce perceived fatigue?

16:06 -

  • I like to speak from a scientific background. The answer is obviously you need to look at both of them. But which one is more important, I don’t know.​
  • Goals are still terribly important. I’ve worked with teams that should not have been successful but have become successful because we gave them a goal that they believed in, and believed that it was possible to achieve that. And we converted them from losers to winners.
  • You have to explain to people why you’re doing it. If you understand why you’re doing it then you’ll do it properly or you’ll do it to the best of your ability. And the bigger the “why”, the better the performance.

Is the 2% decrease in performance a quantitative fact in terms of how much you are held back by your emotions?

17:38 -

  • Yes. That is from the actual data that we collected that when a person started losing, their performance is 2% worse than their performance when they were just competing by themselves.​
  • In those experiments, we had people compete in a laboratory in a 7-8k time trial by themselves.
  • It wasn’t a flat time trial, it was hilly, and this is very important as well. Because,if the course is flat, your biology is different than if it’s hills. Your pacing is different, obviously. But my point is that, that if you go on a hilly course you do different things when you go up and down the hill when you’re tired than when you’re on a flat course.
  • When they competed against another person, their performance went off 2% when they lost. Whereas the persons who are leading went up about 1.5% in performance from winning. When they were winning, they got a boost to go faster and when they were losing, they were slowing down.
  • We also documented the physiology change. The moment the person started losing, their biology changed and it became less favorable.
  • The other thing we found for the first time was that the better performance actually has better emotions. They feel good about it all the time even though they’re exercising harder. I was raised to think that the elite athletes experience more pain. But we showed that that’s not the case, they actually enjoy it more and suffer less discomfort.

Are there any other studies on the Central Governor Model?

19:39 -

  • We advanced the Central Governor Model quite substantially by putting in this other model that there’s an emotional component and there’s also the stopping wish. And when they combine then you’re in trouble, or when they’re good you will do better.​
  • It’s actually a pain model. It’s exactly the way how humans cope with pain. When you have pain, you assess it, you respond emotionally to it, and then you decide how you’re going to cope with it. And this is exactly what happens in athletics except that the difference is that you produce the pain.
  • But it’s not that different. There was work done in World War I where about 50% of the people with these horrendous wounds did not need morphine. So they weren’t feeling pain although they had these horrendous wounds.
  • So the way we respond to pain is not uniform, it’s very different. And for many people, they don’t need medication because they don’t perceive the pain as others do.

Is that a question of pain threshold or pain tolerance or both?

20:47 -

  • I think it’s much more complex than that. I think you just block out the pain and you don’t feel it. I mean, these are people coming in with wounds to their legs or gunshot wounds to their bodies and they didn’t feel pain.​
  • By all accounts we would say their source of pain was the injury, but they didn’t feel it. So they block it out either in the spinal cord or in the brain. They just don’t perceive it.

Key takeaways from the Central Governor Model

21:17 -

  • The most important decision is how important this race is for you and how much effort are you prepared to put in.​
  • One of the people who really influenced me was Mark Allen. He failed in Ironman because he said, “you know, I would go to the race and I would say this is what I’ve prepared and trained for.” And then he realized that if he trains that way, he would only ever come 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. He needed to change that. He had to realize that those races demanded more. And when he went home and trained harder, then he started to win the race.
  • So it’s very important how much effort you are prepared to put in to the event.
  • For most of us recreational athletes we actually have a time limitation. So, we must be realistic with our goals. That’s the key. And one of the basic things is perhaps not to have too strong goals because once you have those goals and you don’t achieve them, then you will feel that you have failed.
  • When I look at people describing the big race that they’ve trained for, 90% of them come away dissatisfied that they didn’t do it right because probably they didn’t train as much as they wanted. If you want to achieve, you have to train. So you have to balance that up. And once you have balanced that up and you’ve decided that this is your goal and you’re going to do enough training for it, then you have to believe in the outcome. You have to be absolutely certain that this is what you can achieve. And that’s where the coaching comes in to convince you. A simple definition of a coach is someone who has more belief in yourself than you have in yourself.
  • In the competition, you must understand that you should never quit. And that what you’re feeling is just your own thoughts. And you need to talk to yourself, and you need to understand, “I don’t have to listen to what you’re telling me. I’m not tired. I don’t have to believe what you’re telling me. You’re just making it up to try and make me slow down and I’m not going to slow down.”

Related to this episode, make sure to check out the following episodes:

Links and resources

A quite short and concise summary on the state of the research on the Central Governor Model in 2012, written by professor Noakes in the British Journal of Sports Medicine:

The Central Governor Model in 2012: eight new papers deepen our understanding of the regulation of human exercise performance

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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