The Sports Sci­en­tist

Is self-be­lief the only thing be­tween all of us and a sub-2-hour marathon?

Runner's World South Africa - - Contents -

The orig­i­nal sub- two- hour

marathon group was set up at the end of 2014, in­tended to help achieve a 1:59.59 marathon within five years. I at­tended the Africa launch of the pro­ject in Cape Town.

At the launch, Dr Tim Noakes spoke about the role of the mind in break­ing through this bar­rier – and it gave me pause for thought.

The premise is provoca­tive: to what ex­tent does the mind – and be­lief, specif­i­cally – play a role in per­for­mance? In Noakes’ own words: “To break two hours, you first have to con­vince the brain that it’s pos­si­ble.” He later sug­gested that what’s pre­vent­ing the cur­rent crop of elites from do­ing it is their brains – by which he means men­tal strength.

You’ll hear no ar­gu­ment from me against the im­por­tance of men­tal and emo­tional fac­tors. Even us mor­tals – who may break two hours in the half marathon – have ex­pe­ri­enced how emo­tional fac­tors such as self-be­lief can swing us from fail­ure to suc­cess, and vice versa.

Noakes’ Con­tri­bu­tion

Noakes’ ‘Cen­tral Gov­er­nor’ model de­scribes fa­tigue as re­sid­ing in the brain, rather than the mus­cles. I stud­ied fa­tigue and the brain (un­der Tim) in my own PhD, so – along with the en­tire ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy world – I owe him a huge debt of grat­i­tude: his pi­o­neer­ing work changed the con­ver­sa­tion around fa­tigue.

Be­fore Noakes, fa­tigue was in the mus­cle; some­thing ‘failed’ – whether it was me­tab­o­lism, or heat reg­u­la­tion, or oxy­gen de­liv­ery to the mus­cles – caus­ing the ath­lete to slow down or stop ex­er­cis­ing, be­cause they sim­ply didn’t have the ca­pac­ity or abil­ity to con­tinue.

What he pro­posed, and oth­ers have since shown, is that fa­tigue is ‘reg­u­lated’ by the brain. When we ex­er­cise, dozens of phys­i­o­log­i­cal sys­tems are in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with our brains, which then set the pace that we can run, based on how we feel.

The critical con­troller of ex­er­cise is our sense of ex­er­tion; in other words, the mind. But this ‘mind’ is the re­sult of phys­i­o­log­i­cal feed­back that is too com­plex to mea­sure fully. By cre­at­ing and manag­ing this per­cep­tion of ex­er­tion, our brains pre­vent us from over­do­ing it; be­cause if we did, we could po­ten­tially harm our­selves.

Ob­vi­ously, in this sys­tem, emo­tion and other psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors be­come ex­tremely im­por­tant; they al­low us to in­ter­pret and tol­er­ate those phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes. So this the­ory al­lows for emo­tion and psy­chol­ogy, which is good. It’s more com­plete.

All In The Mind?

But to say it’s ‘all in the mind’ means that the pen­du­lum has swung too far from the old ex­treme (‘it’s in the mus­cles’) to the new. To sug­gest that any elite ath­lete can sim­ply run faster ‘if they be­lieve’ is anal­o­gous to sug­gest­ing that you can suc­cess­fully com­mit sui­cide by hold­ing your breath!

It won’t hap­pen. Be­cause phys­i­o­log­i­cal reg­u­la­tion still ex­ists, and ul­ti­mately wins the day. You can get close to the limit, ab­so­lutely; but there’s a line there that phys­i­ol­ogy won’t cross.

And so – while there is re­serve ca­pac­ity – elite ath­letes can’t ‘be­lieve’ them­selves faster; be­cause the con­se­quence of run­ning faster would be phys­i­cal harm, and they’re al­ready right at the limit of what is safe. Noakes of­ten says that an ath­lete

could have run faster, “be­cause he didn’t die”. He also ar­gues that the ath­lete who loses has ‘cho­sen’ to lose – by quit­ting, or giv­ing up – be­cause they clearly have re­serve.

Which is ex­ces­sively sim­ple. There is without a doubt a role for men­tal fac­tors, and for be­lief. But they’re part of an in­cred­i­bly com­plex reg­u­la­tory sys­tem – one that pri­ori­tises phys­i­ol­ogy, and thus per­for­mance.

In a the­o­ret­i­cal world, then, sim­ple be­lief is enough to un­lock po­ten­tial. But in the real world, the bar­ri­ers im­posed by phys­i­ol­ogy – even in a ‘reg­u­lated’ sys­tem – are very real, and won’t be bro­ken by a mo­ti­va­tional quote.

Un­for­tu­nately, there are no short­cuts. It boils down to train­ing – which im­pacts both phys­i­ol­ogy and the mind.

RW Sci­en­tific Ed­i­tor Dr Ross Tucker has a BSc ( Med) ( Hons) Ex­er­cise Science De­gree and PhD from the Sports Science In­sti­tute. Visit him at www. sports­s­ci­en­tists. com.

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