RK Tip of the Week|Exercise Intensity…what you perceive is what you get

Posted on January 21, 2011


File this under “now you know!” I’ve said it forever, coaches have drilled it into their players – heck, even your mom & dad said it to you when you were just a wee-thing. In some way or another, someone has told you – if you think it, you can do it. “Believe in yourself.” “Visualize the outcome you desire.” “If you think it, you will act ‘as if’, if you don’t, you won’t.” I was just taught this cool theory that backs up the truth of all those statements & I want to share it with you too!

It’s called the “Central Governor Model” and it plays a fairly important role in how you perceive the difficulty of your exercise. What it says is that while there are definite physiological cues that can limit exercise (think lactate build-up) there is another factor at play that YOU are in control of- your perception!

Here’s the details on the Central Governor Model – exercise performance is controlled centrally, by the brain. It says that (read this slowly) the rising perception of discomfort produced by exhausting exercise progressively reduces the conscious desire to over-ride this control mechanism, which, if it (the Governor) were to be reduced, would lead to the recruitment of more motor units.

Think about that – the more you THINK that your level of exercise is hard – the less recruitment of ability you will have. Woah.

This model implies that there are subconscious decisions that are being made by your brain based on how you consciously perceive what you are doing – whatever pace you want to keep will be determined by conscious data you’re taking in – think “this is too fast/heavy” your brain will reply with reduced output ability to match your perception.

When the Central Governor Model has been put to the test, it has been found that runners who see their pace and think the pace may be too fast for what they can do, their body responded by slowing down based on the perception they felt of “this is too fast.” But think about this with lifting a heavy weight for a certain amount of time, or for doing x amount of jumping jacks – you perceive it as “too heavy” or “too many” and your body responds with “yep, too many/too heavy, slow down.”

At its essence the central governor model holds that the brain continually monitors all of the body’s systems and uses the data to calculate the maximum rate at which exercise can be performed while preserving and protecting the body from irreparable harm or death. This is very different from traditional models of exercise fatigue – that say lactate build-up (for example) are what cause the ultimate slow-down or failure of the exercise, so as to avoid a total physiological implosion.

Total physiological implosion is rare, so no real need to worry about that, but breakdown before true physical limit is far too common. Consider – you may be the one causing your own breakdown.

A super triathlete & coach I work with wrote a great article this week reminding all of us to feel the signals our body is sending us, instead of always relying on a heart rate monitor, rep count or set time to tell us what’s happening. I took her advice today for my treadmill hill run designed by the wonderful Jen Harrison, and while I did wear my monitor, I vowed to only look at the data after the workout was over.

I covered up the treadmill speed/pace display with thick paper & just pushed up and down arrows to match my goal for each segment of the workout. When I felt like I was getting too high in the zone I was designated to work in, I slowed down a bit. When I was in a recovery phase, and I felt recovered, I pushed the up arrow to speed up and hold a higher but still comfortable pace. And check it out – post workout, I had the BEST data I’ve had to-date on a hill workout day!! I also had the BEST mental awareness at the end of the run – I even ran long  because I was in the sweet spot of “this feels right” and didn’t want to end it! I’m not fast, I won’t pretend to be, especially not on hills – but if I can string together more workouts like this one, I’ll have put in more time with a positive physiological and mental result – and in the middle of competition, that’s all I need!

So go see about overriding your Central Governor just enough to get you farther along in your exercise. Pay attention to feel instead of just rep counts or pace. Realize that your self-determined end-point of ability is probably nowhere near your true physical end-point and adjust your mental focus accordingly.