Professor Tim Noakes’ research findings are bound to cause a stir – they herald a new approach to exercise that could change the way champions train and even help people off the sports field.
Fatigue doesn’t originate in a sportsman’s muscles, as scientists have believed for many years. It originates in their brain …
This research by world-renowned sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes shows the brain has far greater control over sports performance than sports scientists have ever realised. And you can condition your brain to achieve success.
Noakes, co-founder of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (based in Newlands, Cape Town), is making his surprise findings known for the first time.
At the same time he and his team have submitted their study to a top American medical journal for publication. His findings cut against the grain of existing scientific opinion – that an athlete’s muscles become tired because lactic acid accumulates during exertion.
Noakes has turned conventional scientific wisdom on its head before. The first time was when he demonstrated that fitness doesn’t make people immune to heart attacks. Then he showed neck injuries were a serious – and preventable - problem at all levels of rugby in South Africa.
Thirdly, he provided proof the amount of water US experts recommended marathon runners should drink (1,2-1,8 litres of water an hour) was far too much and could lead to water intoxication rather than prevent dehydration.
In each case his findings were questioned and discredited – and in each case they were adopted worldwide some years later.
Where it all began
For years scientists have thought runners get tired during a race because of a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles. The more lactic acid in the muscles the more tired muscles become and the more difficult it is for the athlete to keep going.
But how can your muscles feel tired when you’re activating only 40% of your muscle mass? Noakes wondered. And why do athletes run faster at the end of a race when their muscles are at their most tired? Why are they not even close to as tired after 42km of the Comrades as they were after the marathon they ran five weeks earlier?
These questions encouraged Noakes to test marathon runners. The research showed the level of lactic acid in one’s muscles has nothing to do with one’s perception of tiredness. "Fatigue is simply a sensation the brain invents so you don’t overreach yourself," he explains.
"The human brain is a marvellous but selfish mechanism that reacts to its environment to ensure its survival in the easiest way possible."
The brain controls the body. It interprets all the body’s signals. If, for example, you’re an athlete the brain interprets how you react to hot or cold conditions, how well rested you are, how fit you are, how well prepared you are physically, how far you’ve run before, how far you now plan to run, whether your body harbours a disease or is experiencing pain – as well as your mental condition and confidence in or doubts about your own abilities. It uses all this information to programme your muscles to prevent your body from doing anything that may put it at risk.
So if you’re unfit, have slept badly or want to run 90km in blazing heat your brain will make your legs feel tired and stiff to avoid potential heart failure that could put your life at risk – the brain knows it can’t survive in a dead body.
Noakes’ study also shows a banned stimulant that boosts performance can completely override the brain’s decisions. It could make you carry on training even when it’s harmful to your body. If you switch off your brain – your body’s defence mechanism – you put your body at risk of total collapse. And it may prove fatal.
Your brain determines if you win or lose
Noakes’ study provides a new understanding of the immense influence the brain has on our performance levels. And in many cases it’s not physical factors such as heat, lack of fitness or injury that affects your brain but your doubts or lack of confidence, he says.
Tim believes you should visualise your victory and train with it in mind.
The brain isn’t just a finely tuned machine but also a sensor that can detect and react to self-doubt and hesitation. It interprets doubt as a signal that the body isn’t up to the task. If you worry about completing a race before it begins you’ve already lost – your legs will feel tired from the start even if you’re fit.
If you really believe you can win – not just think it but deeply believe it because you’re fit, at the peak of physical preparation and know you’re capable – your brain takes this confidence and programmes your body for optimal performance.
If you visualise your victory, ‘‘taste’’ it before the race begins and train with victory foremost in your mind, chances are excellent you’ll produce your best possible performance.
That’s exactly how the Springboks won the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Noakes says. "That trophy was won before the team left for France. We worked with Jake White and saw how he convinced each player the team was going to win the final and that every match was a hurdle in the race to the trophy.
He convinced them the only way to clear each hurdle was to play for the full 80 minutes and to put in 100 per cent as there were no second chances."
There are other examples. One is the excellent season the Cape Town University rugby team (the Ikeys) had in the university tournamen. The team wasn’t physically as strong or skillful as some of the other teams and was ranked last in the universities’ club rugby competitio, yet thanks to Noakes’ empowering ideas they reached the final.
"When two fit athletes compete one shouldn’t be surprised if the one whose mind is better conditioned wins, even if he’s not physically quite as strong as his opponent," Noakes says.
"Good physical training is important. But what goes on in your head will determine whether you’ll win or lose, whether you’ll be able to break through a psychological barrier or not – and whether you’ll hold a medal in your hands and smile with satisfaction at the end."
Turning scientific theories on their head
Noakes first went against accepted scientific theory in the mid-’70s when he disputed the idea marathon runners were so fit and healthy they were 100% immune to heart attacks while competing.
In 1976 a brave 26-year-old Noakes addressed a medical conference in New York, quoting research that refuted the findings of one of America’s most respected sports scientists. By 1979 the world had accepted Noakes’ findings – being fit can greatly improve your heart’s health but it can’t magically cure an underlying heart condition.
The second issue related to neck injuries in rugby. In 1980 Western Province fullback Chris Burger broke his neck during a match in Bloemfontein. According to Noakes something was amiss because Burger wasn’t insured for a sports injury, nor did he receive adequate treatment on the field (he was carried off after a long delay because no stretcher was available).
He was also convinced the accident could have been prevented. Rugby legend Dr Danie Craven argued Noakes was overstating the case but the number of neck injuries in rugby was increasing.
The following year the first study of its kind showed school rugby injuries were much more serious than rugby bosses said. In 1991 Craven admitted Noakes was right – neck injuries can be prevented. The rules of the game were changed and today rugby is safer. SA Rugby has invested more than R8 million to help prevent neck injuries.
The issue of drinking water while running
Next Noakes tackled the issue of how much water marathon runners should drink. When a number of Comrades competitors collapsed with nausea and vomiting in the 1981 race it was assumed dehydration was the cause. No, said Noakes – the runners suffered from water intoxication because they’d drunk too much water.
His recommendations were introduced gradually in South Africa and no serious cases of water intoxication have been reported in the Comrades or any other ultramarathon since 1991.
Nevertheless American experts refused to accept Noakes’ findings. However, after an unacceptable 13% of the participants in the 2002 Boston Marathon suffered from water intoxication Noakes’ water consumption recommendations were slowly introduced in US marathons.
By 2005, almost 25 years later, world consensus had been reached and today Noakes’ advice – drink when you’re thirsty – is regarded as the international norm.Tim Noakes has been physically active all his life and has run more than 70 marathons and ultra-marathons, including seven Comrades Marathons. Now well into his sixties, he still runs 21km races regularly.