Burfoot, Noakes, and the ultimate workout


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


Fascinating post on Amby Burfoot’s Peak Performance blog about a recent Yale study on the mind and appetite hormones. Researchers gave subjects either a high-calorie or a low-calorie milkshake (and told them which one they were getting), then measured the change in ghrelin, a key appetite hormone:

As you would expect, the subjects’ ghrelin levels dropped after the indulgent, high-calorie shake. After all, this thing contained more than 600 calories. It would fill up anyone. When the subjects drank the low-cal shake, their ghrelin levels stayed basically the same.

Here comes the twist: The shakes were identical; they were all moderate-calorie.

So what does this mean? Amby goes on to discuss other phenomena like “sham arthroscopy” and the”world’s best running workout.” The whole post is worth a read, but I found his suggestion for a workout particularly interesting: 5 x 1 mile as hard as possible… then when you’re done, your coach makes you do one more at the same pace:

From this workout, you’ll learn forever that you’re capable of much more than you think. It’s the most powerful lesson you can possibly learn in running.

I agree. And it also made me think of something Tim Noakes told me when I interviewed him last summer. I’d asked about the origins of his “central governor” model, and how coaches might actually apply its lessons in practice. Here’s what he said:

I think all the great coaches always work on the brain anyway. And they get you to run faster because they teach you that you can… I remember the compelling moment in my own rowing career was we used to do 6 times 500 metre repetitions. And one afternoon, we did our sixth and turned around rowing back to the boathouse, and the coach says, ‘No, go to the start again. You’re doing another one.’ So we did another 500. And he said go back. And we did another four. And you know, no one would have believed that we could do that, if you’d asked us… That taught us that you have to teach athletes, somewhere in their careers, that they can do more than they think they can.

As Amby points out, the problem is that you can’t prescribe a workout like that to yourself: you need a trusted authority telling you what to do. This is a really interesting and important point. We keep on discovering that the brain is more powerful than we’d suspected in regulating performance (and even appetite hormones) — but it’s still not clear how we can actually harness these powers.

12 Replies to “Burfoot, Noakes, and the ultimate workout”

  1. Great post great study… Since I’ve read Noakes, I always wonder about how I could fool my brain… I’m wondering for individual training if a dice would work? Each face with a time/distance and intensity/pace, two-three with quit on it. You’d roll the dice and do the prescribe training until you hit the quit. Some training would be amazingly hard, some very easy, you’d get a rest day here and there. Worth trying I would think!

  2. I can still remember my coach posting a workout that read:

    2 x 5000m @ 60:00

    which doesn’t sound bad until you realize I was in a pool, it was a swimming workout, and we had to do another 5000m in the afternoon workout.

    You can always do more than you think you can.

  3. Reminds me of the movie Gattaca. Where the genetically inferior Ethan Hawke beats his genetically superior brother at a ‘swim out into the ocean till someone turns back’ competition. His response to how he won was “I never left anything for the way back.” But of course he made it back alive.

  4. ‘The whole post is worth a read, but I found his suggestion for a workout particularly interesting: 5 x 1 mile as hard as possible… then when you’re done, your coach makes you do one more at the same pace:’

    I would be careful here. This workout also sounds like it could be a recipe for sustaining an injury. I am just getting into running later in life (now 48 – ran my 1st marathon in march). By far I have gotten into more trouble when pushing myself hard in workouts as opposed running easier. The easier running affords more weekly volume. For me its after the increased volume that surprise myself with what I can do.

    I think that most are more likely to push their workouts to hard and over estimate their current ability as opposed to the alternative. What % of people think they are better than average drivers? The answer is something like 70-80%.

    I think it is true that in the long run we are capable of more than we think, but the way to get there is with accurate self assessment and unspectacular but consistent and gradual training accumulation.

  5. Fool your brain by racing without a watch and go by feel. I’ve tried this twice — 5k and 10k — and exceeded my expectations. Not sure about applying this to the half marathon because of the risk of taking it out too hard but I may try it.

  6. “I’m wondering for individual training if a dice would work?”

    I think not; at least, not for me. Here is my experience from a group ride with which I was unfamiliar. The format of the ride is to go out to a local hill, do some repeats, then regroup and ride back together. Because the ride was new to me, and because decisions on such rides are sometimes made collectively, I was unsure how many repeats we would do. I knew that in the early months of the year, they had sometimes done only 4, but now usually did 5. But this was a nice day, the dawn of summer. Would they do 6? 7? Of course, I could have just stopped my reps and waited for everyone else to finish, but that would have been pusillanimous. The result was that I held back a little on the 4th & 5th reps, then regretted it. I think it is not enough for the workload to be uncertain; you have to be tricked into thinking you are done, so that you maximize your effort … only to be shown that it wasn’t 100% after all.

  7. @Phil Koop
    I don’t know Phil. The opposite could also be true. Imagine that the day before you were saving energy like you suggested above and your workout ended abruptly. Chances are that the next workout, you’re not going to hold it again and give a solid effort for each interval, but then it continues on and on, you would end up with a heck of a workout that you would probably have stopped long before or conducted at a lower pace if you had known what was coming.

  8. Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks! And love the Gattaca reference, Ryan. 🙂

    @Seth: I certainly agree that trying to push “beyond the limits” on a regular basis is a recipe for disaster. The kind of workout Amby describes here is something you might do once a year, or once a season at most — it’s about the brain, not the body.

    @Rich: That’s a good point. So good, in fact, that I decided to try it yesterday in a 10K — the first time I’ve raced on the roads without my watch in years. It was a very different feeling, and I was pretty happy with how it went!

    @Fxg and @Phil: Interesting stuff. For me personally, I’d tend to agree with Phil. Introducing greater uncertainty into the workout generally makes your brain behave more cautiously, so most people are more likely to hold back (without necessarily being aware of it) if the details of the workout are uncertain or left to chance.

    That being said, I do see what you’re saying, Fxg. If you’re REALLY willing to entrust the details of your training to the dice every day — i.e. you’re willing to essentially skip three days if you roll “quit” three days in row, for example — then I agree that you’d be motivated to go hard when the dice tell you to, and could end up doing an unusually hard workout if you get a long streak of “go hard”.

    But I think it would be pretty hard to actually convince yourself to “believe” in the dice. As Burfoot points out in his blog point, the real key is belief and trust in the coach, not deception. Similarly, you’d have to really believe that following the dice’s instructions was the best route to fitness, even when it went through streaks of seeming irrationality.

    Lastly, I do think mixing things up — whether with randomness, spontaneity, or simply a less structured workout (mixing different distances, recoveries, terrains, etc. instead of simply doing 5×1600) — can indeed allow some people (depending on personality) to push harder than they might otherwise. That’s great from a physiological point of view. But does it teach the same lesson to the brain (or central governor or whatever)? These approaches work (to the extent that they do) by keeping your brain confused and preventing it from imposing a judgment about how fast you should go on the next interval. In Burfoot’s 5×1600 scenario, in contrast, you’re setting up a very specific expectation and then proving to yourself that you can exceed that expectation.

  9. Hi, Alex & thanks for the response.

    I guess I’m still not sure what the purpose of the ‘ultimate’ workout is. You’re not going to perform harder or better in that workout than in a race situation. In each case their is motivation to achieve maximum outcomes and I would argue more motivation in a race.

    It would seem to me if done as a workout (even rarely) it would likely require more recovery than would ideal and produce some disruption from optimum training. I think when training is optimum the race situation will provide the stimulus to approach actual capacity and potentially exceed expectation.

    What I am really enjoying about becoming a runner is finding the balance between working hard, working consistently and allowing for recovery. This seems to involve bringing the body and brain (mind) together so that neither has to either fool or limit the other.

  10. “You’re not going to perform harder or better in that workout than in a race situation. In each case their is motivation to achieve maximum outcomes and I would argue more motivation in a race.”

    What Noakes’s Central Governor theory would argue is that it’s not about motivation. There’s a reason that, in 63 of the 64 men’s world records ever set over 5,000 and 10,000 metres, the last kilometre was significantly faster than every other kilometre in the race except the first one. It’s not that the runners weren’t motivated to push for home earlier in the race — it’s that their brains were holding them back until they got within striking distance of the finish line. It’s a universal behaviour that can’t be overridden simply by motivation. The question is: how much energy will your brain keep in reserve? Part of the training process is teaching your brain that it’s “safe” to reduce its safety margin. The purpose of the “ultimate workout” — or at least, one possible purpose as I see it — is to teach the brain that your body’s capabilities are greater than it thought, and thus to set a new, more aggressive template for future efforts.

    If you’re interested in learning more about the brain’s role in pacing, Ross Tucker (who produced some of the key research relating to the central governor) has an introductory post at the Science of Sport blog: http://www.sportsscientists.com/2011/03/central-governor-and-athletes-clock.html

  11. Interesting dialog. I have read much of Noaks work in this area.

    regarding the following

    ‘There’s a reason that, in 63 of the 64 men’s world records ever set over 5,000 and 10,000 metres, the last kilometre was significantly faster than every other kilometre in the race except the first one.’

    I would look at that fact and draw the opposite conclusion. It seems that all the world records occurred when the pacing allowed for a sprint at the finish. So it appears that world records are pretty rare when going out so hard as to leave nothing in the tank. When a runner ignores his brains signals to keep something in the tank the result appears to be inferior, otherwise we would see more world records where the runner did not run such a fast final 1k. Why would we assume that training the brain to reduce the safety margin would lead to better times when all the best times seem to occur when abiding by that margin?

    I tend to fall with the thinking that our subconcious is pretty intelligent and that our best bet is be intune with those signals and train with that awareness. Rather than a focus on exceeding what seems like ones fitness level in a race (by fooling the brain) I think there is more to gain by learning how to make good self assessments. I think this skill can lead to optimal training and subsequent performance outcomes and not just in running. Having giving these opinions I will aknowlege that in the specific field of running I’m a relative newbie.

    Thanks for the discussion.

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