Skip to content

Central Governor Theory

I recently wrote a blog on VO2 Max and Lactate Threshold ( As I alluded to in that blog, there is a counter argument to VO2 Max being the gold standard when assessing fitness potential.

Despite sounding like a North Korean Job Description, The Central Governor Theory is based around the theory that the brain will override your physical ability to run and will shut the body down before you’re able to do serious, permanent damage to yourself.  So whereas VO2 Max supports the idea that we are limited by our bodies(/our hearts) ability to transport oxygen rich blood to our muscles, the CGT argues that it is actually our brain in control, and intent on self preservation, only recruiting muscles fibres until an ‘acceptable’ point is reached, thus avoiding critical or – fatal – damage.

The chief proponent of this theory is Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Cape Town, Dr Tim Noakes, author of running bible ‘The Lore of Running’. Dr Noakes argues that “…fatigue is actually a central (brain) perception, in fact a sensation or emotion and not a direct physical event. This stems directly from our interpretation that exhaustion results from changes in central (brain) commands to the muscles, rather than as a result of changes in the muscles themselves.”(1) He goes on to support his theory further in the paper “The central governor model of exercise regulation applied to the marathon”, where he says;

“Marathoners also finish such races without evidence for a catastrophic failure of homoeostasis characterised by the development of a state of absolute fatigue in which all the available motor units in their active muscles are recruited. These findings are best explained by the action of a central (brain) neural control that regulates performance in the marathon ‘in anticipation’ specifically to prevent biological harm.” (2)

Although this may sound a little bit like a black box or little man in your head pulling levers it is certainly something I think all endurance athletes can relate to; how many of us have hit that stage where “race pace” is extremely difficult to maintain, and the thought of running faster – even for just a minute – seems impossible. Yet, when you get within 400 meters of the finish, you’re somehow able to summon a kick and a big sprint finish. The argument being that if we had reached an maximum level of muscle contraction – fuelled by oxygen, or the VO2 model, we wouldnt have this ‘kick’ available). However once the brain realises it won’t die if you pick up the pace it allows another percentage of your muscle fibres to kick in. Of course, this is a fairly simplistic example, and does overlook the physiology of the individual. Regardless of any Central Governor, if the physiology isn’t in place to run 6 minute miles, you wont be running 6 minute miles!



Another proponent of the CGT – although he prefers the term ‘Anticipatory Regulation’ – is Ross Tucker, a performance sports consultant also of the University of Cape Town, as seen on the below video. His website, referenced below (3) offers a much more in-depth review of the theory.

Both Tim Noakes (@ProfTimNoakes) and Ross Tucker  (ScienceOfSport) are on Twitter, and very responsive to questions!
  • 1. Lore of Running 4th Edition, Noakes, TD
  • 2. The central governor model of exercise regulation applied to the marathon, Noakes TD.
  • 3.
N.B. There are no ‘one size fits all’ style quick fixes in most injury scenarios, so these article shouldn’t be seen as such. They are merely guides to a better understanding of how our bodies work.
For more information please visit

Leave a Reply