The Central Governor Theory, and The Science of Suffering

It’s so very easy to toss around the idea that “we are all capable of so much more than we realise” with little critical evaluation but exercise physiologist Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Theory offers genuine scientific credibility to the mantra.

Noakes’ summation that the human body stores levels of endurance and strength that are seldom (if ever) truly called upon is foundational to this modern interpretation of Misogi. Central Governor Theory details that the brain acts primarily as a regulator of the physiological system as a whole, limiting exercise output to safe levels of exertion in an act that was once a powerful evolutionary survival mechanism. The brain ensures its survival by limiting potential risk factors such as core body temperature, blood lactate levels, muscle recruitment and available fuel stores to non-debilitating levels.

If a hunter-gatherer on the Serengeti were able to push themselves, in the chase of a kudu, to such levels of heat exhaustion that death was a very real threat, then the human species may have been severely hamstrung in their efforts to feed themselves. Imagine how many tribesmen would run themselves into an early grave in the pursuit of a meal – or in modern times, how many Olympians would drop dead in the pursuit of glory?

Noakes argues that, in the tribesmen’s instance, the brain itself deliberately restricts the body’s ability to produce excess heat in a range of methods – by restricting muscle fibre recruitment, or by redirecting blood flow away from demanding skeletal muscle – well before a critically dangerous level of core temperature is reached. This theory is often used for an explanation as to why the occurrence of heat exhaustion is relatively common, and yet death from heat stroke is markedly more uncommon. The body is far more likely to ‘fail’ well before such a truly mortal threshold is crossed – with passing out from heat exhaustion serving as the brain’s last ditch attempt to get you to respond to its hints.

Body temperature is only one of countless variables that the brain seeks to restrict, in an effort to preserve the physical body. Noakes argues that the subconscious mind enforces similar ‘overrides’ in efforts to control maximal heart rate, the strength and power of muscular contractions, and the function of the pulmonary system in the event of lowered oxygen saturation.

One of the most glaring anecdotal examples of this theory in action can be seen at the thirty-to-thirty five kilometre mark of any urban marathon.

Observe closely the now-slowed pace of the average long distance runner at this point. While a limited pace and feelings of exhaustion are fairly typical here, as the body begins to switch its primary fuel source from muscle glycogen to stored lipids (fatty acids) – something remarkable occurs next.

The running speed is reduced dramatically, and the runner may feel as if they cannot continue – and yet soon the forty kilometre mark is reached, and friends and family begin to line the road to the finish line. All of sudden, a surge of energy shoots through the formerly struggling marathoner, and they find themselves blessed with a brazen restoration of stamina, and able to muster a quick finish into the chute. What has happened here at a physiological level, to cause such real struggles and desires to quit a mere five kilometres earlier, and then a staggering return to form near the end of the race?

Noakes argues that this is Central Governor Theory at work. The athlete’s brain, sensing varying and potentially alarming levels in the body of various crucial measures – including low muscle glycogen stores, a high core temperature and high blood lactate levels – unconsciously begins to enforce its own will on the body. This causes the intensity of exercise to unwillingly drop, bringing the aforementioned biological measures to safer levels – followed by a resurgence in intensity as the finish line, and biological safety, nears.

Crucially, this occurs on an unconscious level – meaning the whole process takes place autonomously, with no willing input from an athlete. Central Governor Theory is explored in depth in Alex Hutchinson’s aptly titled Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. The book offers consistently fascinating insight, with strong scientific credentials, into the sheer power that the brain yields over the human system.

One notable experiment explored in the book sees a team of research scientists in Chile evaluate the effect that altitude has on the production and accumulation of lactic acid in the skeletal muscle at high efforts. The theory was that, as lactic acid is produced and accumulates at an exponentially increasing rate with lower levels of oxygen in the body, then working at a high intensity at altitude (where the oxygen in the atmosphere is less dense) would surely see a rise in measurable blood lactate.

Despite this intuitive assumption, the results were rather astounding. Rather than a predictably higher level of blood lactate in the muscles of the cycling athletes in question, a surprisingly low (almost non-existent) level of the byproduct was produced. This was later found, in subsequent tests, to be due to the fact that fewer and fewer muscle fibres in the large muscle groups of the cyclists legs were being recruited with each contraction, the lower the saturation of oxygen became – despite the cyclists’ own conscious efforts to work at a maximal intensity. The research team concluded that the brain was unconsciously limiting the ability of the muscles to function by restricting their output, to the point that lactic acid simply could not be produced at a ‘dangerous’ (unable to be dissipated) level.

This sort of research, and that comprising Noakes’ theory, lend genuine credence to the infamous Navy SEAL maxim – “when you think you’re done, you’re about forty percent done.” The brain will call for us to stop and rest, or to slow down, or to get warmer, well before is is truly necessary to do so.

While the restrictive processes of the brain are, as stated, unconscious and occur without any input, the allure of an early finish can clearly be avoided and ignored – as any endurance athlete can attest to. We have all felt the very real sensations of “hitting the wall” – nothing more than our body both changing fuel sources, and encouraging us to rest – only to continue for hours past this point.

This is, in essence, the science behind the concept of Misogi – there is a huge well of untapped endurance and physical potential within us, protected by well-intentioned survival mechanisms, that we are slowly learning to carefully and temporarily ignore in the pursuit of loftier goals.

It is a balancing act, for sure, as the risk of true overuse and overexertion can be real – yet we seldom ever find ourselves nearing that point.

We rarely make demands of our physical bodies that genuinely push the limits of its capabilities – often for good reason. When a person makes contact with a high voltage of electricity, they may be launched across a room. There is no explosion taking place, and no external source of acceleration – rather, every muscle in the body is being forced to contract, and the victim is essentially jumping a huge distance of several metres, entirely unwillingly. Obviously, tendons and ligaments will rupture, and entire muscle groups may be torn – but it highlights the sheer kinetic potential stored within the skeletal muscle.

Misogi reminds me of this, every time I am faced with the inevitable pangs of “what the hell am I doing?” The will to stop at the eighty mile mark of an ultramarathon, or the unshakable desire to get the hell out of near frozen water, can seem unstoppable. Now, however, I take five minutes when on the brink of throwing in the towel to do a deep and thorough assessment of my hierarchy of needs. Am I developing frostbite, or kidney failure, or muscle cannibalism, or am I simply just uncomfortable and my brain is prompting me to make an adjustment?

This is a learnable skill.

We can learn to become more enduring, and more resilient. By throwing ourselves into difficult situations, we can build the necessary neuro-pathways to develop a level of familiarity with them.

We can improve our capacity for discomfort, and Misogi is the best way I have ever been shown.

Expanding Our Scope, or Why Cross Training Is More Than A Side Hustle

The SAID principle – ‘specific adaptations to imposed demands’ – is undoubtedly a universal and unyielding rule of training, and human biology as a whole.

We improve at that which we practice. If you lift a load of heavy weights on a consistent enough basis, a broad range of physiological and neurological adaptations take place in your body – increased muscle fibre recruitment, increased metabolic function, increased skeletal muscle mass, to name a few – and over time, you become better at lifting heavy weights.

In a traditional sense, there’s really no getting around this specificity requirement for our training; hence why it is uncommon to see elite marathoners working on their maximum deadlift in the gym. The chronic physical adaptations in the body required to run a fast marathon time could not be more different than those required to heave three hundred kilograms from the ground.

Therefore, when employing alternative forms of exercise in our training to provide respite or variety (cross-training), we are historically encouraged to maintain a level of specificity in our actions. The cross training may be a completely different activity than our usual chosen sport, but the underlying energy systems and demands on the body remain relatively constant.

This is pretty well Fitness Training 101 material.

However, it can be argued – and has been demonstrated, both academically and anecdotally – that this interpretation of the principle is limited, and perhaps is far too definitive than it should be.

I had this exact conversation with a friend and now-retired elite Australian triathlete, who was baffled by my brazen and perhaps ill-informed choice to train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu consistently in the lead up to my first one hundred mile ultramarathon attempt.

Mixing the two vastly differing disciplines can indeed seem conflicting and counterintuitive at a glance, as outlined earlier, and as pointed out by my friend. After all – what exactly am I asking my body to adapt to, and why am I sending it such mixed signals? Do I want to adapt to be better suited for fighting in short, intense anaerobic efforts, or to be able to aerobically turn my tired legs over, mile after long mile?

I’ll completely accept that the physiological requirements of the two, when applied so literally, are not in harmony. Distance running favours high levels of muscular endurance, and a strong cardiac and pulmonary output at low effort levels – while the more intense Brazilian Jiu Jitsu calls for muscular strength and power, and an ability to function predominantly anaerobically.

But if you apply an only slightly wider interpretation of the SAID principle in training, and look at some of the perhaps more intangible elements of human performance, the choice to train both is perhaps not quite so brazen.

For one, my foray into Jiu Jitsu exposed me to constant, maximal intensity efforts over continuous hours. There was sweat and blood, and bittersweet moments of total bodily exhaustion. It taught me calmness under pressure (while an opponent is trying their best to choke you unconscious) a genuine tolerance for mild to severe discomfort, and a degree of fearlessness matched with deep humility and respect for limitations. It taught me to find reserves of energy when I thought I had reached my maximum output. It’s a pursuit in which you are constantly reminded of the ‘bigger fish’ that surround you, and are forced to make peace with that fact, put your head down and seek improvement. These are all useful tools to have in an ultramarathon running toolbox.

It’s sort of like involuntary yoga.

I’ve never experienced a more tangible and real feeling of ‘the grind’, a word thrown around like so much confetti in the realms of fitness training, than when sparring Jiu Jitsu. What we are actually referring to when we talk of ‘the grind’ is the notion of ‘work capacity’ – the amount of physical exertion that we can both perform and positively adapt to. My work capacity, my ability to function continuously under duress and fatigue, improved dramatically in my year of counter-intuitive training – and I remained injury free, healthy and motivated to learn.

Can it not be argued that the hours spent in the martial arts gym helped me to build and polish skills that actually translate wonderfully to the world of endurance sports, despite the fact that they share select few physiological requirements? Did the work capacity that I built in Jiu Jitsu not spill over into my long distance running ability?

Endurance athlete, and personal hero of mine, Ross Edgley would undoubtedly agree – serving as a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to multiple fitness components at the one time in his 2016 running of a marathon distance whilst pulling a 1400 kilogram Mini Cooper. The ‘freakish’ event highlighted Ross’ capacity for both strength and stamina, which he developed through building an absurdly high work capacity. Ross is famed for his ability and willingness to take on any challenge at seemingly any time, no matter the discipline; and as a result, has become one of the most rounded and high-performing athletes walking the planet today.

It is hugely important that we don’t write people like Ross off as freakish, but rather dissect and analyse how they became the way that they are. Ross didn’t emerge from the womb with the capacity to swim two thousand miles around the English coastline, or rope climb the height of Everest in eighteen hours (all things that he has achieved) – he developed it slowly and meticulously over time with varied yet focused training.

I suppose the take-away from this post is to not be continuously caught up in the finer points of fitness training, and to challenge and question traditional ways of thinking about our abilities. While we should indeed all learn more about existing knowledge and research in the fields of physiology and psychology, we can also benefit from being more liberal and broad in our application of said knowledge. I see a lot of athletes that I know become so obsessive and confined with their approaches to their own training, and I’m becoming more and more convinced that it may not be always necessary. It can limit the ‘wholeness’ and overall ability to perform a range of physical tasks, can limit training variety and interest, and can crucially withhold valuable skills and lessons that can unexpectedly be added to the repertoire of our pursuit in focus.

A common explanation I offered in the last year of my training was that “running an ultramarathon is hard, and so I’m just training to do hard things.” It sounds simplistic and poorly informed, but there is a mounting body of evidence that suggests that we may have been unnecessarily deconstructive and limiting in our approaches to training in the past. I lifted heavier weights, I rock climbed, I fought and swam, and ran a load of miles on the trails. My capacity for handling discomfort and fatigue increased. And I had the best athletic performances of my life, to date.

It’s important that we remember that the body doesn’t differentiate hugely between a carefully tracked and recorded track workout at the Australian Institute of Sport, or two hours of star-jumps on the spot in a hotel room at 2:00AM – it merely responds and adapts to stress and stimuli.

We don’t always need to over complicate it.

Channel Swimming, An Introduction

 


It is with some level of anxiousness that I begin writing this first post. I try as best as I can in my daily life to maintain a foundation of humility and to do away with my own ego as much as possible – and so the notion of dedicating a website largely to one’s own athletic pursuits can, at first glance, seem to fly in the face of that.

This being said, I hope that Misogi Team can be far more than just another Instagram fitness account in a market that is already heavily saturated. Rather, the site intends to document both the physiological and psychological science behind endurance and our often self-imposed limits, as well as articles on the achievements of men and women far more interesting and accomplished than myself. I hope that at least one person following the site feels to some extent inspired to raise their own bar for themselves and to try and see just exactly what they are capable of, just as the practice of Misogi has done for me.

Obviously, the site will also serve to document my training (ideally in an engaging an non-egotistical manner) and preparation for the seemingly endless physical and mental challenges that I have chosen to lay out for myself – but to a larger extent, it will focus on the mindset and psychological exercise that I am convinced are the keys to achieving one’s objectives.

 


The deep ocean scares the absolute shit out of me. I honestly wish that this wasn’t the case, but it would be a lie to say anything else. In my own defence, it is not so much the depth but rather Australia’s Great White inhabitants that I have such struggles with. I have spent my entire life in and around the ocean, but the further I have tried to venture into open water swimming with comfort, the more readily apparent my genuine fear has become.

Open-water training in the South of France

I hear romantic stories from other triathletes and long-distance swimmers about the pure bliss and euphoria they find in the open swell, and the remarkable beauty of the wild ocean. I’m sure that it’s there, and I deeply wish I felt the same – but the looming threat of a fish-related death seems almost undeniable to some fight-or-flight part of my brain.

It may indeed seem trite and overused, but I do sincerely believe that there are wonderful times to be had over the borders of your comfort zone – as a thousand online personal trainers can tell you, with any number of nice motivational posters. Most of the meaningful experiences I’ve had in my relatively short life thus far have been as a result of medium to severe discomfort and unpleasantness. Both physically and mentally.

As well as that, on a personal level, I really do not like something so intangible having such strong control over me. Such a thing as fear will just stand in my peripheral, as an unwavering testament to that which I cannot do.

So it seemed suitable to orient my next big athletic goal around the bountiful aquatic sphere of the Australian ocean.

On March the 23rd of this coming year, I will be attempting to swim the equivalent thirty-three kilometres of the English Channel in the open waters of South Australia, while fighting a very tangible fear pretty much every stroke of the way.

I’ve been a strong swimmer, but never a wonderful swimmer – having come from a traditionally long-distance running background with the odd triathlon thrown in. Comfortingly (?), the reading I have done on the matter reinforces my suspicion that you don’t necessarily have to be fast – you just have to be able to continue, all day long, against an ever-mounting desire to stop. This attempt would be nearly seven times as far as I have ever swum before, in open waters, with the very real possibility of having to swim in darkness at either end of the day. Two rather daunting elements for me to mentally adjust to, and to prepare for.

Despite my lack of a swimming pedigree, the foundational skills towards achieving something like this are deceptively intuitive, and are techniques that I have practiced in other arenas, for all of my life. Someone swims the English Channel is very much the same manner that anyone does anything seemingly difficult.

You strip the task down into manageable components, and tackle them individually on the micro level. What starts as an insurmountable distance is broken down into several, smaller pieces that seem within the realms of possibility. This is one of the central rules of Misogi – ‘process over outcome.’

If every single process ( in this case, each stroke) is delivered with maximal intention and efficiency, and continuously delivered, then the outcome is inevitable – the Channel will be crossed. So attention needs to be stripped entirely from the far-away objective of finishing the swim, and rather placed wholly on being fully present for each individual stroke. The beach at the end really shouldn’t be on my radar until it is absolutely safe to let my mind wander, and instead I should resign myself willingly and intentionally to the possibility of sixteen hours with my head facing the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

These are techniques that we all use at some point in our lives – be it at school, or at work, or with raising children. We take a huge project and we strip it down to a more palatable size, and focus on what we can handle right now, rather than the overbearing big picture. You don’t spend the first year of medical school stressing over your internship several years later. For some strange reason, I have the impression that very few people apply this some school of reasoning to their own physical capacities. We are truly all capable of far more than we ever ask of ourselves, we just tend to focus on looming goals rather than the actual body of work itself.

That is the theory, at the very least. What remains for me is obviously a huge amount of time between here and now spent progressively overloading swimming distance and time, in an effort to induce chronic changes in the body to adapt to different movements and endurance-swimming specific demands. Perhaps more importantly for me, there will need to be a lot of time spent mentally preparing for dealing with what is a very real personal fear – as I will explore and write of in the coming training weeks.

At the very least, I do not have any fear of failing – despite failure’s very real presence here – or a fear of the proverbial ‘biting off more than I can chew’. I will happily go down swimming, even if it means being dragged from the water into a support kayak, a mere seven kilometres into the attempt in March. There is glory in failing in great attempts, as Bruce Lee so eloquently spoke.

I really, sincerely believe that there are countless benefits to my life brought on by attempting to do things that fully extend my perception of my abilities, or my abilities themselves – even if that means falling well short of my target. Process over outcome, once again.


If you’re interested in reading about the coming months and my experiences of trying to get into Channel-crossing shape, then stay tuned for following articles. I’ll explore the physiological requirements and science behind moving from my current state of fitness to a more aquatic one, as well as my experiences training and the experiences of other men and women who inspire me. As much as it fascinates me, I will try to prevent the sports science components from becoming overly dry – and similarly try to keep a more grounded approach to talking about myself and my experience than the “me, me, me” attitudes that can easily come with this territory.