La vie de vélo

Adventures in cycling and life

the central governor

While it sounds like something out of a political distopia, the theory of the central governor has really changed the way I look at training.

I first read about it a few months ago in Tim Noakes’ excellent book, The Lore of Running:

Despite the title, its probably the best book you’ll ever read for your cycling training – especially the first half where he delves very deeply into excercise physiology. And in presenting and analyzing a number of competing theories, he leads readers to his theory (of course) of a central governor.

To paraphrase, our central nervous system is continually monitoring the state of our peripheral systems and, based on these indicators, can adjust muscle power accordingly in order to prevent harm to our bodies. In other words we don’t completely run out of fuel, or have a heart attack, or tear our muscles irreparably, or acidify our muscles to the point of paralysis. At some point during exercise, the brain/central governor recognizes that keeping the same level of effort will cause catastrophic damage so, long before the damage takes place, it slows down muscle recruitment and you start experiencing ‘fatigue’. Note that, according to this theory, the lack of fuel or oxygen, the presence of lactic acid or any of the myriad of other theorized peripheral system don’t directly cause the slowing and fatigue; rather they are signals to your nervous system to cut back the effort. Our brain, looking out for our bodies, is subtly telling us to slow it down by causing fatigue!

So I’ve begun to shift my mental approach to training. Instead of training my heart, lungs, capillaries and muscles, I am training my brain. I am conditioning my “central governor” to live dangerously, applying subtle pressure and reassuring it that nothing bad will happen to me if I push it just a little bit further and harder. Getting it used to the feeling of pushing hard, assuring it that I will indeed recover so that next time, it doesn’t try to hold me back quite so soon. Its a balancing act of trust… hard, steady effort vs. recovery … teaching my nervous system to understand that my body, while it may be hurting, is not in harm’s way.

It doesn’t actually change much in my actual training plan, its just a subtle shift in how I conceptualize and visualize the overall process. Next time I’m halfway up Rist canyon and it starts getting steep, I’ll just say to myself, “OK brain – I know things look bad right now but if you let me keep pushing to 8000 ft, I promise to feed you a nice steak dinner tonight and take it easy tomorrow. Deal?”.


December 17, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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