Steve Prefontaine ahead of Frank Shorter, 5000m finals  of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Image by Rich Clarkson shared from The Happy Rower

Don’t Forget to Train Your Brain: The Central Governor Theory

Based on theory and research by Dr. Tim Noakes in 2001 and Nobel Laureate in 1923.

The human spirit is hard to measure with scientific tools and evidence. Especially true, an athlete’s spirit. Thus The Central Governor Theory is just that. Theory. Personally, as a life long athlete myself, and having thousands of conversations with highly competitive athletes, I believe that Tim Noakes is correct in his hypothesis. He says that our brain can over ride our physical ability to perform and “shut down”, telling us to “slow down” for self preservation. While our bodies may be highly trained we may sell ourselves short during the race due to this self protection phenomenon. Have you ever noticed that you suddenly have more physical energy when you see the finish line up ahead? It could be that when we see the finish and our brain realizes we are not going to die as a result of the effort of the race. It releases messages to our bodies to go ahead and increase further motor/output neurons, ignore oxygen deficits and “kick down” more power. Of course training has everything to do with our performance, but the brain may not be training enough.

Training the brain would be possible in many ways but I will discuss 2 of them here. Interval training is one. Training the body at maximum output teaches the brain to endure pain, along with increased physiological benefits. The second is self talk, and visualization techniques. When you know that you are highly trained for your race, be sure to tell yourself that you will be in pain, that you accept it will be a part of the race and see your self crossing the finish line is strong position, or imagine seeing a clock with the time you are hoping for, or a PR.

Understanding that the pain is temporary can help you ignore the request of the Central Governor. Have you ever noticed that some Super Athletes often discuss loving pain? Steve Prefontain and Mohamid Ali were always bragging about loving and embracing their pain. According to Noakes, racing is a balance of 3 things: #1. Physical preparation. #2. Emotional components – MOTIVATION and pain tolerance, and #3. Self preservation

In writing this article for you, and many of you are weekend warriors, I am simply offering you a tool to discover for yourself. There is so much we don’t know about human sports performance, and the Central Governor Theory is an angle worth exploring. Anyone who loves sport can appreciate it and take something from it in some way. Why do we “love” to train and race? Why do we love to challenge ourselves and feel the “pain”? These are further questions to ask of ourselves and “train our brains”. I encourage you to research more for yourself, as this is just the tip if the iceberg.

Namaste- Kim Freetly

Kim is a Nationally Certified Sports Massage Therapist through NCBTMB, National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork and educator and CEU Provider for the NCBTMB She is a Specialist in Strength and Conditioning with ISSA.


Warm Up and Rest During Competition

Warming up for your event is crucial. The more we age the more time we need to warm up.

The warm up is especially beneficial to our fascia/connective tissue. Ounce for ounce we have about the same amount of fascia as muscle. Fascia stretches when it is warm. Lack of warm up may cause injury to tendons, ligaments  and muscle itself, as each tiny muscle thread in cased in fascia.

Warm up can be anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes depending on one’s age and specific activity. Once one has warmed up, the body and its fibers stay warm for 15 to 20 minutes. During that time, feel free to sit down, or even lay down before your event goes off. This rest period allows blood from your limbs to distributed through out your entire body, and believe it or not, that short rest might give you the “kick” you need to finish the race in strong position. When you’re resting, try to relax your mind. Save your adrenalin for the starting line and the race itself.

Photo courtesy Jayme Burtis Photography

Sports Massage Research

Massage has become an integral part of the new athletic regime, from sports medicine clinics to college training rooms, and for professional athletes to weekend warriors. A growing number of sports trainers and sports physicians believe that massage can provide an extra edge to athletes who train and perform at a high intensity. Sports-specific massage addresses wear-and-tear on the body, corrects minor injuries before they become serious and helps the athlete recover faster. The physiological and psychological benefits of massage therapy make it an ideal compliment to a total conditioning program.

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said that massage works quite differently from non-steroidal and other anti-inflammatory drugs, which reduce inflammation and pain but may actually retard healing. Many people, for instance, pop an aspirin or Aleve at the first sign of muscle soreness, but according to Dr. Tarnopolsky,  “there’s some theoretical concern that there is a maladaptive response in the long run if you’re constantly suppressing inflammation with drugs. With massage, you can have your cake and eat it too—massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell recovery.”

Support for his position comes from his February, 2012 study (1) published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Dr. Tarnopolsky had young men exercise to exhaustion followed by massage to the quadriceps muscles of one leg, leaving the other leg to recover without massage. The researchers biopsied tissue taken from both legs immediately after the massage, and again 2 1/2 hours later, which when analyzed revealed that short massage boosted the production of mitochondria (the energy factory of the cells) in the massaged leg. Other positive biological effects were also reported in the leg that received massage.

Other recent studies (2) document a host of neurochemical effects from massage. Among the neuroendocrine chemicals influenced are:

Dopamine: controls the ability to focus attention, and influences mood to produce feeling of inspiration, joy and enthusiasm. Massage increases available levels of dopamine.

Serotonin: this is the “get a grip” chemical, as it regulates appropriate emotions, attention to thoughts, quieting and comforting effects. Low levels of serotonin have been implicated in cases of depression, eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder. Massage increases the available level of Serotonin.

Endorphin/Enkephalin (endogenous opiates): The mood lifters support satiety (the feeling of fullness after eating) and modulate pain. Massage increases levels of these chemicals, regulating appetite and perceived levels of pain.

Oxytocin: Implicated in love and bonding, levels of this hormone can also be increased through massage to stimulate positive connections with others.

Cortisol: The “stress hormone”, cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands during long periods of stress. Cortisol has been implicated in many stress related symptoms including suppressed immune states and sleep disturbances. Massage reduces levels of cortisol.

Growth Hormone: Promotes cell division and in adults has been implicated in the function of tissue repair and regeneration.

Massage therapy balances the blood levels of serotonin, dopamine and endorphin which in turn facilitates the production of natural killer cells in the immune system and regulates mood.

In addition to the neurochemical benefits, massage can play a major role in reducing muscle dysfunction.

Healthy muscles are smooth, hydrated and free from knots and contractions. Our skeletal system supports our muscles. Ideally our muscles are perfectly balanced. Each muscle has it’s own job in getting us around in our active life styles.

If our muscles are balanced with gravity, we are upright and graceful. But when a muscle or muscle group becomes unhealthy, it can cause a chain reaction and breakdown which affects the entire body. When one muscle or muscle group becomes injured, another muscle or muscle group will make up for the injury. Subsequently, that muscle or muscle group becomes over-worked and also breaks down. As a result, a chain reaction occurs.

Deep Tissue Massage can restore and balance the function of the muscles. The use of heat and ice can be helpful along with stretching and guidance in nutritional supplements. A careful assessment of your physical muscular system and implementing the necessary therapies can get you back to a pain-free state of being.

I hope this page has helped you to understand the broad and dramatic benefits of massage Therapy. Here is to you and your good health!


Kim Freetly, L.M.T.

(1) Crain, Tarnopolsky, et al. “Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage.” Sci Transl Med 1 February 2012: Vol. 4, Issue 119

(2) Mosby’s Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage. Third Edition

Massage Therapy can not be used to take the place of medical treatment and a Massage Therapist cannot diagnose any medical condition.