Central Governor Theory

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The central governor theory is a model for understanding the limits of human performance (remember that All models are wrong). Instead of athletic ability being limited only by biomechanical systems, the central governor theory proposes that the limits are from a combination of the mind and body. For example, if we run far enough that our muscles start to become damaged, our brain receives signals indicating there are problems, and our mind perceives this is suffering and we have a desire to stop.

1 Why would we need a central governor?

The central governor helps prevent unnecessary damage to our bodies. As we exercise to the point where damage begins, our mind perceives the urge to stop. This perceived suffering is balanced against our Motivation, and when the suffering exceeds the Motivation we will stop. So if we were chasing an animal to eat it, we would push ourselves hard and endure quite a bit of suffering to avoid hunger. But if we were running away from a bear that wants to eat us, we could push ourselves much harder.

2 So is it all in our mind?

No, that's one of the biggest misunderstandings of this theory. It's true that if we had more Mental fortitude and could bear more suffering, we could run further or faster. However, such a simplistic view is misleading. The absolute limit of performance is set by our biomechanical ability, and the central governor defines how close to the absolute limit we can get. Consider the analogy of holding your hand over a candle flame; how long you can keep your hand in place is dependent upon your pain tolerance. If you had greater pain tolerance you could withstand a greater degree of burning, but any normal person will remove the hand before significant damage takes place. The difference in pain tolerance just gives some variation in the amount of damage we can stand. In the same way, greater Mental fortitude will allow us to push our bodies harder, but it does not allow us to ignore our biomechanical limits. For example, let's say that without the central governor, running at 5:00 min/mile would cause catastrophic damage, such as a torn tendon. If I'm on a training run, I might be able to push myself to run a 6:00 min/mile before the suffering overwhelms my Mental fortitude. If I'm more motivated, such as a big race, then the extra Mental fortitude might allow me to run at a 5:30 min/mile pace rather than a 6:00 min/mile pace. But no matter how motivated I am, I can't go faster than 5:00 min/mile, and realistically I'm unlikely to get close to that speed. A faster runner might suffer similarly at a 4:30 pace to my 5:30 pace, and a slower runner might suffer the same at 7:30. Someone who is unfit might suffer the same at a 13:30 pace.

3 The Rev Limiter Analogy

An analogy would be the rev limiter in a car. The rev limiter prevents the engine turning over too quickly and getting damaged. Without the rev limiter you'd get more performance from your car, but not an unlimited amount and not without risking engine damage. One performance modification is to change the engine management system so the rev limiter is higher, which ekes out a little more performance at the cost of greater damage. Likewise, we can push the boundaries of our Central Governor and get slightly more performance. This translates to potentially better race times and potentially better training results. But push too hard and you get injured or Overtraining.

4 Why does it matter?

Building Mental fortitude can help improve our performance, as it helps push the boundaries set but the central governor. Also, training helps give the central governor more experience, so it can make better decisions. For instance, experience with running in hot conditions helps avoid overheating as the central governor becomes more aware of the heat stress.

5 Can we override the central governor?

We can push ourselves hard enough to do quite a bit of physical damage, but normally the central governor keeps us safe. There are however some situations that the central governor does not cope well with.

  • If an athlete has a condition that results in sudden, catastrophic damage without any prior warning, the central governor cannot protect them. One example would be a heart condition that results in a myocardial infarction.
  • Sometimes the central governor does not respond quickly enough when exercising in hot conditions, especially when unaccustomed to the heat. This is especially true for unfit, overweight individuals who do a short burst of high intensity exercise; the core temperature can spike and cause heat stroke.
  • Drugs such as stimulants or PCP can override the central governor.
  • The central governor seems quite poor at preventing Overtraining. This is especially true of Too Much Too Soon and Overuse. However, it could be argued that Overtraining Syndrome is actually a protective mechanism, acting in a similar way as Major Depression to reduce activity and avoid stress.

6 Can the central governor predict the future?

It seems that the central governor is not only aware of the current damage, but has some degree of foresight. For instance, running in hot conditions tends to be harder mentally even before the core temperature has become elevated. When running long distances, the expectation of the time spent exercising seems to be a factor in the central governor's control. This can be seen from the fact that few runners hit the wall at mile 25 of the marathon; the knowledge that there is only a short distance to go informs the central governor.