The Sports Scientist
Is self-belief the only thing between all of us and a sub-2-hour marathon?
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’ ‘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.