Limits and the Central Governor

There are few things as dangerous as an intelligent skeptic. I’ve worked with Dr. Tim Noakes a few times for my Trail Running Magazine coaching column. He stands out in my mind as the preeminent skeptical sports scientist.

It’s pretty clear to me that the more we know about how the body works — or just about anything for that matter — the more we realize how little we actually know.

Why is it that at the end of an ultra-marathon a runner can run 7min/miles for the last five miles, when, at mile 70 in the race they were void of this energy and walking? Nobel Prize winning physiologist Archibald Hill was the first to propose, in 1924, the idea that the heart was protected by a “governor”. This went largely ignored until Dr. Noakes’s research¹ in 2001 caused the idea to reemerge.

When we race, our body have no idea we are doing a competitive event. They perceives the stress of the race as a threat to it’s existence. In an effort to save ourselves from death, our brains cause us to feel pain, and/or fatigue; which will slow or stop us, and save our lives. I find this topic fascinating, and I think it becomes even more applicable to ultra-runners. The longer an endurance event goes, the more it shifts from a physiological challenge to a mental one. How much are you being slowed by your central governor? Are there ways to overcome this, or is that what we already call determination?

Radiolab podcast on limits:

Has anyone out there have any good central governor stories? If so please post in the comments.

I’ll leave you with Julie Moss in 1982, during just the 4th ever Ironman Triathlon,  crawling the last 10 feet of the race. “I felt my life changing.”



Also check out Dr. Noakes’s recent book debunking the nonsense rhetoric we’ve been fed by the sports drink companies. It’s called Waterlogged.