Muscle Failure or Perceived Exertion: What's Really Slowing You Down?

Credit: Vance Jacobs Photography

Peak season: when, after months of hard work, triathletes finally get to hit the big summer races fully trained, tapered, prepared, and (gulp) with no more excuses. "It's just a training race" no longer works. It's where rubber meets the road. But despite excellent physical preparation, some athletes finish these races feeling unsatisfied.

Now there are a lot of factors that contribute to a strong performance, including the athlete's training plan, the execution of that plan, and maintaining the crucial balance of working hard and recovering well afterwards.

And there are completely legit reasons races don't go as planned. As with most athletes who have professional careers and family obligations, things come up that affect your training: You change jobs; you move; get married; have kids.

On the more minute scale you might get a flat, drop a precious water bottle or encounter some other bit of bad luck that affects the race itself. If one of these situations happens, you must make peace and move on.

But more often than not, it's an athlete's ability to consistently push themselves in training and in racing that separates the great racers from those who do not perform as well.

More: A Mental Mindset for Multisport

Simply put, racing hurts. And it's the athletes who can push further into the pain cave who walk away feeling more satisfied with their race-day performance.

How hard can you push yourself exactly?

Traditionally, exercise physiologists believed that when their research subjects "went to failure" during a time trial test, they literally physically spent themselves to exhaustion. Meaning, they maxed out their oxygen carrying ability to working muscles and the body shut down.

However, Tim Noakes, a well-known and respected exercise physiologist and researcher from South Africa, believes otherwise. According to his "central governor theory," your brain constantly monitor your body to limit any damage you could do from any extended physical exertion. The brain wants the body constantly in homeostasis for its long-term wellbeing.

When you start pushing yourself into higher levels of exertion (and out of homeostasis), your brains limits your ability to push further by "reducing the neural recruitment of muscle fibers."  You experience this as fatigue, and the brain thereby protects the body by limiting the exertion long before any real damage to the heart, joints, or muscles ever occurs.

Hence, the brain "governs" the body and your exertion.

More: Pacing Strategies for Race Day

While certainly controversial, it suggests that athletes (consciously or sub-consciously) limit their own abilities long before they have reached their physical limits. And interestingly, these findings have been substantiated.

In another article, a group of elite rugby players were asked to perform a planned 10-minute time trial to exhaustion on a bike. Immediately after they stopped (and thought they were done), they were then asked to sprint all out for five seconds. These athletes cumulatively averaged 240 watts for 10 minutes, then 700+ watts on the sprint only one second later. As traditional exercise physiology states, if these athletes went to physical exhaustion, they would not be able to push more power into the pedals for the sprint so soon. However, that they had more power to push for the sprint suggests they were not at their physical limits at all, supporting Noakes's central governor theory.

More: How to Create Your Own Interval Workouts

About the Author

Discuss This Article

Follow your passions

Connect with ACTIVE.COM