Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stretching the Elastic

You may have heard of the central governor theory? Or you may be a normal person! Basically the theory expounded by Tim Noakes of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, amongst others, is that the brain regulates the intensity and duration of exercise to prevent damage to key organs, especially the heart. It says that fatigue is actually a sensation that limits the use of muscles for exercise. Therefore, before you damage your body you will slow down and even stop.

I have a huge amount of respect for Prof. Noakes work, which is almost always ahead of its time or takes on unfashionable theories of others and stimulates debate.

As a runner, who has found a new lease of competitive life in the US, I'm finding myself in racing situations where previously I'd probably be in the pack. That's perhaps down to a lack of depth in some of the fields here, but also that I've started running personal bests (PB's) at 45 set when I was 30! It started with going off too fast in races, but then discovering that I could hang in at that pace much longer than my training seemed to indicate.

Sunday's race was where I had Tim on the brain, literally. It was a pancake flat half marathon on the banks of the Columbia river, with PDX airport on the other side. I'd run 35km on trails the day before, so my legs weren't their freshest. The field was 600, but looked thin at the front, so I knew I'd be able to race with the front guys. Off we went at about 3,35 a km pace, too quick for me to sustain, but necessary just to clear the field. I found myself in complete isolation after a kilometre, in 5th, with 4th and 6th placers already gapped either side. It was going to be a 21km solo, hard training run.

At about 6 miles my legs started to feel the day before run, and that when I thought of Tim, and what actually was hurting? Yes I could feel my legs were working, I had a slight headache and I was breathing hard, but all those elements had been there after a mile. So I ignored them. I looked at the Columbia, I watched the planes take off and land, and I said 'good job' to the other runners as I passed them on the out and back course. It worked. I didn't really slow down, even with a pitstop I got within 40 seconds of my 'on fresh legs' PB.

Brain tricked, job done! Later that day I had what is a normal sort of (for me) lull with dodgy tummy and headache. The problem was it didn't go away. No details, but the body broke down. It didn't like being pushed beyond the stage where it shouted 'stop'. It's still not right 5 days later. This was only a 21km race, not a 500km adventure race, a trek to the Poles, or a marathon at 3 minutes a km, but I guess it's the intensity and your own limits that determine where your own bottom of the well is. Now I know it can be deeper but there are consequences, and despite quite a lot of 'discomfort' It could have been worse. I'd like to think I'll listen to my brain next time, but that's difficult when you know you can push beyond previous limits.

Further reading


  1. Good to see that you can put in 2 good runs in a row... I hope this new found speed and strengh stands us in good stead at African X.

    Yes running a half marathon on one's own is hard work and the mental side of things comes into play... In my 10km on the weekend I lost a bit of time because the mind is weak!

    1. i'm working as hard as i can :) I'm in the i really really hope i dont get injured/sick window now!