Running fast, short or long distance runs can not only highly affect our body, but also our brain. Why does our body’s energy levels go up and down during a long-distance run? Why is it so challenging and difficult to correct and change our running form and bio-mechanics? Why is it so difficult to change our stride, pace and form? The Central Governor (our brain) is in charge of protecting our overall system from any harm. The brain determines how hard and long our body can run without causing any damage. Often, the brain, not the muscle is actually responsible for some severe reactions such as bonking, cramping and even nausea. The brain controls and gradually disengages physiological systems (neuromuscular activation) in order to protect our vital organs from overload and depletion. When running an ultra-distance, muscle activation decreases after long effort. That explains why at some point some of our muscles like quads, calves become so sore. But once we get closer to the last section of a long-distance run, often our neuromuscular firing increases. The reason is once our brain believes that we are safe and closer to the end of an Ultra, it will release more energy.
This Central Governor Theory explains the up and down nature of both pain and fatigue during ultra-races, even though the actual muscle strain continues to increase. The brain mostly cares about itself, it will do anything to protect itself. During long-distance running, why would the brain choose to de-activate useful muscles? The Central Governor probably believes that those specific muscles are using too much energy or are pushing too hard, because the brain is in charge, it needs to come first. That’s why when we try to correct our running form, we struggle to make changes in our stride and bio-mechanics.
The two most common flaws in ultra-runners:
Insufficient forward lean
Limited hip power (lift and push off)
As proper running form, slight forward lean and strong hips are essential in maximizing speed and minimizing stress. That is why most runners tend to shuffle upright once the body gets tired- Safety. According to our brain, leaning forward is perceived as fall risk, that’s why our brain controls our running form by sending messages to the body to stay upright. As for hips, lifting high and pushing strong is more powerful and energy-efficient. But the brain sees that as lifting the foot too high off the ground is risky, especially when running on trails. According to the brain, the closer your feet are to the ground the safer you are, that is why the brain blocks the hip power. In reality, upright shuffling stride on the trail can create more falls. To be safer and stronger running long-distances on the trail, we need to have proper form, lifting our feet, slightly leaning forward and using our hips.
How can we unlock our brain and control our Central Governor? Training
People often look at training simply as physiological adaptation, but to convince our brain that what we are doing, running fast and far, lifting our feet, using our hip strength, leaning forward is safe, is a very crucial part of our training. We can train our brain to feel safe running long-distance on more technical terrain, especially once our body starts to feel tired. Train your body and brain so you can enjoy long-distance running!
Train Hard, Eat Right, and Feel Great!