Inside The Runner’s Brain

The lull in anatomy ended several months ago. This only means my days have once again been filled with reading – reading books, re-reading books, and weeks of days spent delving into the far reaches of the internet in search of the latest revelations on the runner’s brain.

It would be a fair assumption to think this post will ooze facts about all the positive benefits running gives back to your brain. The benefits are countless and noteworthy, but my curiosity lies more in what the brain contributes to our running, or our capacity to keep running. In other words, has anyone confirmed whether the brain controls or limits endurance?

Early studies concluded it was the heart itself that became fatigued, which resulted in too little blood being supplied to the skeletal muscles and brain. Running all out at our fastest pace for several minutes could make us all support this theory, but the heart does not fatigue. This realization led to the idea of a governor that terminates exercise before maximal blood flow to the heart is achieved and the heart is damaged. The supporting data suggested that a governor somewhere within the body terminates exercise before the heart and skeletal muscles are forced to contract anaerobically (without oxygen). These notions persisted and evolved for a long time.

The central governor theory has ultimately come under attack with compelling arguments. One scientist observed that with the exception of combat activity, sport is perhaps the brain’s biggest challenge, requiring more cognitive skills than is often appreciated.

The ability to plan and execute performance, make corrective adjustments to behaviour (e.g., modify skill execution or pacing strategy), resist temptation, manage emotions, elevate collective obligations above myopic self-interests, and persevere despite disappointment all constitute acts of self-control (or self-regulation) implicated in successful sports performance (Friesen, Devonport, Sellars, & Lane, 2013; Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996; Tamminen & Crocker, 2013). This is one of the lines of thinking that gave us a new term, ego depletion, and a string of new theories about the limitations of endurance.

I’ve contemplated abandoning the brain several times. There are other anatomy posts I could churn out in an afternoon, and I’d much rather move on to the creative side of writing. Instead, the typical routine is to do my research in the late afternoon while my husband reads or watches the news. Some days, the world seems to be in total chaotic calamity in the background noise of the news – all the while I needle my way through the theories of endurance.

It was a breakthrough day when I came up with an outline from the 25 pages of research notes I had collected. Then I found a thesis written in 2016 by a Doctor of Philosophy student at the University of Wolverhampton. The author presented research from four studies that examined self-control in sport, and co-authored two additional studies that explored emotion as a factor in the self-regulation of endurance. The best news of this discovery was that it’s written in plain English, and presents the studies and opposing arguments of the studies already in my research notes. Even better, all of the studies’ control subjects were athletes, and in one case they were competitive endurance runners. The bad news of this discovery is that the thesis is 292 pages long. The reading phase begins again.

It’s fairly typical for me to regurgitate my research at the end of the day over a glass of wine with my husband. Sometimes it just helps to talk about it and get it out of my head, but mostly his reactions help me sort through the data. He reminded me one day how few people experience the feeling of pushing their body to the point that the brain would shut them down. And there may be fewer people still that observe this shutdown on a personal level in someone else. It’s a humbling experience on both sides, but as he said, the experience almost always leaves the athlete more confident and empowered.

I presented several questions in a previous post about the heart: Do the muscles fatigue and reduce their output because the body has reached its maximum potential to deliver oxygen? Does the heart force the muscles to reduce output because it senses a lack of blood flow (oxygen) and works to protect itself? Or, does the brain anticipate when the blood and oxygen supply to the heart is about to become inadequate and reduce the recruitment of the muscles causing exercise to diminish or cease (fatigue) before damage is incurred to the heart or skeletal muscles?

Even if we acknowledge the body’s central governor must be found in the brain, and thereby controls the mechanisms that dictate endurance, this simply raises more questions. Stress, will-power, emotion, fatigue, motivation, the placebo effect, and even personality traits originate in the brain and each one contributes to, or limits endurance. . . the brain is still under construction.

The Runner’s Do-Absolutely-Nothing Approach To Rest

The headline promises that if we know this one thing, we will never, ever stop training. We’ve worked hard to become the super heroes we are today. We can run for hours, outpace a cheetah, or lift a VW Bug. Why on earth would we risk losing this for a few measly rest days we won’t enjoy anyway?

Exercising at least 30 minutes per day, five days a week for just over a week increases our plasma and blood volume. A few weeks later our heart rate no longer spikes, and we get better at dissipating heat through sweat. We feel more comfortable.

Then our heart gets better at pumping blood, capillaries increase so that more oxygen and nutrients reach the muscles, and now we can exercise even longer.

Keep going and we gain muscle mass, strength, and cardiovascular efficiency; after six months of endurance training, it’s possible to increase blood volume by as much as 27 percent.

Take just three days off and you lose that blood volume increase, and now your heart rate increases during exercise. Within two weeks, the amount of oxygen we can process drops by about a half percent each day. The brain’s ability to recruit muscle drops by one to five percent.

Three weeks off and the muscles begin to atrophy. The body increases its reliance on carbs rather than fat for fuel while simultaneously increasing its capacity to store fat. In other words, the body you had trained so efficiently to burn fat during those long runs can no longer burn fat – just as it also becomes easier to get fat. Excellent.

But even super heroes need rest.

Hans Selye first discovered how the body reacts to stress, including a set of responses he called the “general adaption syndrome,” and a pathological state from ongoing, unrelieved stress. Sports training theorists eventually used his ideas to explain why adequate recovery is an essential part of the athlete’s training program.

The General Adaptation Syndrome has three phases: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion.

During a stressful training event, your body alarms you with a sudden jolt of hormonal changes which immediately equip you with sufficient energy to handle the stress. If the stress continues (exercise does not end) or recurs for a period of time, the body resists by making adjustments in its structures or enzyme levels to give it added protection against this specific type of stress. At this point rest must occur for repair/recovery and rebuilding to begin. Rest restores balance.

Problems begin to manifest when you find yourself repeating this process too often with little or no recovery – not enough rest days, time between speed sessions, or even recovery time between races. Ultimately this moves us into the final stage.

EXHAUSTION STAGE: At this phase, the stress has continued for some time. Your body’s ability to resist is lost because its adaptation energy supply is gone. Often referred to as overload, burnout, adrenal fatigue, maladaptation or dysfunction. Stress levels go up and stay up resulting in injury and/or illness.

The problem is that we don’t always completely recover between workouts. Some of the fatigue stays with us, accumulating slowly over time. A 2005 study of Olympic swimmers found fatigue markers still present in the rested athletes six months after their season ended.

In sport science, fatigue is the term used to describe the inhibition of maximal performance that comes about as a result of stressors imposed on the athlete. Although acute fatigue lets us know we’ve trained hard, cumulative fatigue is problematic.

It is generally believed the primary cause of training-induced fatigue is the total volume of a training program, and not nearly as much its intensity. This is likely because volume represents the amount of physical work being done, and thus energy expended and damage sustained by the body.

At the time of this writing, I’ve been working through an injury for several weeks. I had done everything by the book: a slow build-up in mileage, low intensity, adequate rest days, and I still got injured. I think cumulative, unresolved fatigue was the culprit.

For more than a decade, I’ve included a few days off from running here or there, but any extended time off was always spent cross-training to avoid losing fitness. That way I could easily transition back into marathon training. I had wanted to take time off at the end of last year, but maintained a minimum effort instead so I wouldn’t lose time in reaching this year’s goal. Executing years of back-to-back training plans (without complete rest breaks) takes a toll.

Dr. Tim Noakes wrote in his book, Lore of Running, “The body only has a finite capacity to adapt to the demands of intensive training and competition. Runners must choose, early in their careers, whether to spread that capacity over a long career, as did Bruce Fordyce and Ironman triathlete Mark Allen, or to use it up in a spectacular but short career, as did Buddy Edelen, Ron Hill, Alberto Salazar, and Steve Jones. This is the reality that both elite and non elite athletes must confront every day that they run.”

I’ve taken a fresh look at the value of the do-absolutely-nothing type of rest. If the point of rest is to restore homeostasis – a stable condition of equilibrium or stability – how is this accomplished if we rest from our primary sport only to spend that time cross-training hard in another sport.

Professional athletes take time off; sometimes a week or two of no exercise followed by a week or two of cross training. This provides the time needed for the body to completely heal without so much time off that detraining begins.

That article that claimed we’d never, ever stop training? The great takeaway was: you should never, ever stop training. . . for more than two weeks, if you can help it. My takeaway is that we should do what’s right for us – whether that’s two weeks or two months depends on your level of fatigue.

Read more: General Adaptation Syndrome: the Athlete’s Response to Stress

This Cottage Garden

The beauty of a cottage garden is its artful irregularity. There’s nothing pretentious or disciplined in these small plots of land, but they are ingenuously designed nonetheless. I can picture a gardener throwing seedlings wildly from the threshold of her humble cottage where these self-sowing wonders create a magical kaleidoscope of perennial beauty. At least this is the vision for creating my own cottage garden.

The ’secret’ garden next door to our cottage attracts hordes of visitors as it turns out. Botanists, biologists, and students of all ages spend lazy afternoons studying the vast collection of plants. A photographer arrived every morning last week at precisely the same hour to capture the slow motion arrival of one particular flower. Bird watchers linger indefinitely, and folks from all around town make regular visits to watch the season unfold.

Virginia bluebells, yellow wood poppy, white dwarf crested iris, flame azalea, yellow lady’s slipper and several varieties of trillium bloom in spring, but there’s more than 500 different plant varieties that make an appearance throughout the year. There’s also a mixture of mature oak, black walnut, locust trees, an umbrella magnolia, and a rare bigleaf magnolia.

The Corneille Bryan Native Garden (I took the pictures this week with my iPhone):

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Plants that have been precariously positioned at the edge of extinction have been brought to this low-lying ravine next door. Half of the world’s known shortia, a threatened herbaceous perennial, went underwater when the nearby Jocassee Reservoir was filled during the early 1970s. A species of grass of Parnassus, a flowering perennial, disappeared from Waynesville after a road-widening and repaving effort. A society of naturalists gave the garden 10 endangered conifers of the Torreya taxifolia species. All of these species now live in the garden.

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There are also two rock-encased springs that were once used to keep food cool in the heat of summer. This one is at the base of the stream just before it reaches the lake.

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Volunteers have identified every plant in the garden. The trillium, poppies, woodland phlox, and ferns are some of my favorites.

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The garden had extended onto our property over the years, but the volunteers re-worked things a bit to give us enough room to add a driveway. This photo was taken from our front porch.

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Natural Haven: Inside the spiritual retreat of Lake Junaluska, Appalachia’s most threatened plant species find a place of refuge.

A-Kills-Me Tendon and a Peroneal Mess

The best laid plans often go awry, and I still don’t understand why it needs to be that way. My husband always advised that we should prepare a good plan, and work the plan. If you have a good plan and stick with it, according to his playbook, success is inevitable. My training plans could surely challenge that theory, or perhaps I’ve yet to establish a good plan?

Twenty-eighteen appeared to be the first year we would not be remodeling a house, and I was going to put the extra stress-free time to good use. I spent several weeks researching the most effective way to design a full-year training program, and documented my plan on this blog. Enter the awry part.

It was late February when I noticed my calves were tight. I even mentioned it to my husband. But life gets busy. We forget to stretch. Muscles get tighter, and they take other major body parts down with them.

My Achilles’ tendon got all out of sorts, and finally I started stretching. Except this irritable tendon became inflamed by the sudden attention and swole in disgust.

Not one to give in to a rant from Achilles, I ran through the pain until it settled down and left me alone. It’s a known fact we will almost always lose a battle with overuse injuries. ”Overuse” is not the true source of our ailments anyway. Training error accounts for most of our problems, which makes the question from the first paragraph all the more apt.

Of course, I continued to train through the pain. If I could just survive a minute or two of being uncomfortable, I could run for as long as I wanted pain free.  But the damage was still being done, and it should come as no surprise that eventually things went from bad to worse.


Achilles’ tendon issues will usually diminish when tight calves are resolved. Even if the tendon settles down, it will flare up again if running is resumed when the calf muscles remain tight. The key is to stretch the calves without over-stretching the Achilles.

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Courtesy: Epainassist.com (includes Achilles’ tendon stretches for recovery)

In my case, the peroneal muscles also became tight. This caused pain in the peroneal tendons that run behind the outer ankle bone. Injury of these tendons include tendonitis, tears and subluxation – the latter of which is not pretty in the least.

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DocPod.com

Peroneal injuries are caused by injury/trauma to the ankle, such as a sprain, or from overuse of the tendon (training that does not include sufficient periods of rest). Having high arches also puts you at greater risk for peroneal injury, and could lead to developing a degenerative tear.

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My full-year training plan has been re-worked. Running has been replaced with long walks, and the strengthening phase began last week instead of next month. I have succumbed to a massage that helped relax the calves and the peroneal muscles – something my husband had suggested in early March. The swelling is slowly subsiding, but the tendons remain tender to the touch. This has clearly been a peroneal mess of my own making.

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The Strategy of Staging

Our downsizing experiment has lasted almost four weeks, and we’re still married – although there was that meltdown near the end of week one.

We had furnished our cottage for the vacation rental market, so we really only needed to bring clothes and a toothbrush. He forgot his toothbrush.

The plan was to bring the bare minimum; no need to move too much until we were sure this downsizing experiment was successful. Except that every day of the first week we had to make an emergency trip back home to fetch something critical to our survival. After a few days of this routine, my husband announced he would not move back home – even if we hated living in this little cottage. It would be the understatement of all time to say he hates to move.

With the gauntlet thrown, we turned our attention to getting our house ready for market. The only thing my husband hates more than moving is getting a house ready for market.

I’ve spent a month of days removing anything from the house that would identify us: family pictures, pictures of the dogs, my running memorabilia. The garage, closets, kitchen cabinets, and even the refrigerator have been re-organized. Then we cleaned everything like there was no tomorrow. The last step was to edit, edit, edit: accessories, books, artwork, plants, and even the area rugs. Staging is the part that sends my husband over the edge. With every house we sell, he swears our house doesn’t even look like our house by the time I’m done staging. It’s wasted time to tell him, that’s the point.

Julie, our trusted realtor, walked through every inch of the house and gave me advice on my progress. We’ve worked together long enough that I could imagine what she would say about almost every accessory in the house. I have a propensity for decorating with dark bronzes. She would suggest something bright instead. And then there’s a few buyer-distracting accessories, such as the dog door stop that has his leg hiked. One time I took out all the bronzes, including the stampede of horses, and stored them in the garage. This time I’ve brought the dog, the fish coat hooks, and a few others to the cottage. Every surface has finally been re-arranged with an eye toward benign and bright in hopes of appealing to the masses.

Our forever home, the one with nine rooms and a mansard roof, hits the market today. Julie reminds us we can always move back home – if it doesn’t sell, if we don’t get the price we want, if we change our mind about cottage life. . .

It’s safe to say we’re hoping it will sell.

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Photos Courtesy Julie Lapkoff, Keller Williams

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A view of the back patio in full bloom last summer (with Bentley and Mr. Boggs).

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The beginning (before photos): Nine Rooms and a Roof

A Lull in Anatomy

I had this idea to write a series of posts on the anatomy of a runner. So far, I’ve published several posts – chapters as my husband calls them – on various body parts and their contribution, or hindrance, to our running goals.

I had set parameters for myself from the beginning. First, each post should contain everything there was to know about the function of a particular area: how our bodies work so ingeniously, what can go wrong, why it goes wrong, and the most up-to-date remedies.

My past frustration was that every resource for this information contained one tidbit of information or another, but not everything. You may hit a dozen some odd sources before finding all you need to know about an injury – not to mention that some of these sources propagate the same gobbledygook year after year despite new research or methodologies, which leads me to my second parameter. . . that I must find the latest and most conclusive research, limiting my references to those studies completed within the past 10 years.

Surprisingly, some topics haven’t been studied in the past 10 years, even though previous studies were inconclusive, and some of the new studies raise more questions than answers leaving us nowhere.

The third parameter was that this would not be a conglomeration of anecdotal advice. If there was ever a personal reference, it should only be to offer affirmation of the scientific findings.

With this in mind, I compiled a short list of running-related anatomical topics. There’d be a post on all the obvious players – the legs, feet, lungs, heart, and the list kept growing. Researching one topic yielded fascinating facts on another topic. I’d cut and paste links to these findings into draft documents dozens of times a day. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became.

It’s not easy to read scientific studies though. They have all kinds of words I’ve never heard before. They’re complex, and, at times, boring with all that science mumbo jumbo. It’s a massive effort to sort through the data, understand it, confirm it with other sources, and figure out how to dialogue it into a post that made sense. After the second or third topic, my husband declared we should plan on these posts taking me three weeks to finish. That proclamation has proven true, and has even grown to six or seven weeks in some cases.

Then I understood we’d have to cover some parts of the body before others, otherwise things wouldn’t make sense. So there became an order to the postings, and the research. Shortly after finishing the upper and lower leg, I realized we’d better address pain, for example. The general topic of pain, even excluding chronic pain, became one of the most intense topics to date. After days of editing, my husband carefully suggested the post was long enough that it could become two topics. I had severely broken the word count bank. I took out any reference to perhaps the worst of all running pain, hitting the wall, and made it a separate post. It wasn’t the only time I split one post into two.

The next topic on my list is the brain. I had already gathered enough research to compile a formidable post when Alex Hutchinson announced his new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. I may have been first on the pre-order list, but this great book remains on the table by the sofa still awaiting my full attention. There’s been a lull in my effort.

By all accounts the brain is shaping up to be the most fascinating topic of all the running-related anatomical topics. The past decade has produced “paradigm-altering research” in the world of endurance sports, and what we once viewed as physical barriers is actually limitations created by our brain as much so by our bodies. Pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, fuel, as Hutchinson describes, involves the delicate interplay of mind and body. As does writing I have learned.

Stay tuned – the brain is under construction.

 

The Great Land Grab

If curb appeal is everything, our little cottage had nothing. A nice collection of ancient trees gave the place a mystical appeal, but they denied us a driveway. There seemed to be enough room, if we could only recapture some of that land from the forest. What we didn’t realize was that taking down 12 trees would be the easy part.

Before:

B28CB8E2-4FF1-4F7A-9BE2-DB105DB839F1The cottage sits in a holler; a term used in our area for a small rising valley region between two hills or mountain often containing a creek. We’ve lived in a holler with a creek before. Moving water can wreak havoc on your landscape.5DEAB8A5-03B0-4544-90EB-32D142D5A373Starting at the top of a large hill behind the cottage, the water ran along the left side of the property. From there it found its way under the street to a creek that runs through a park in the middle of Stuart Circle. Over the decades the water had carved out a wide ditch along its route that left little room for a proper driveway.7DB520DC-C29E-4915-B530-604F3D3C2A56.jpegAn excavator worked for several weeks to take back the land from the moving water. He added a corrugated drain pipe from the top of the hill to the street with collection drains at the top and bottom. Then he moved the earth around to fill in the ditch and take the steepness out of the drive, and still he hauled away tons of dirt.542B5752-7CEA-48EA-BE3E-E5BC96A4C645Hundreds of rocks uncovered in the process now form a retaining wall.2DBEAB09-F48B-4F20-B4AC-1AB6C8817FCFWith that job finished we now realize there’s room for a driveway and a garage with a guest suite. The first land grab went quite well.78FB3E51-D2BA-43FE-B6DD-AD24C7DB3962Meanwhile, my focus had turned to a parcel of land behind the cottage. At the top of an ivy-laden hill is a small sliver of land that sits below another road up above. I wanted this sliver of land to be part of our back yard, but it wasn’t. My worry was that some day a house would go up on this land and ruin everything.0E2540BC-1E30-4A43-A98A-F619C11DEF7AThe long sliver of land was hardly wide enough to build a house given the required set-backs, but it wasn’t impossible. What it lacks in width is made up for in length. It stretches behind our property and past our neighbor’s house as well.F3FBE50A-E8F9-41CB-A90C-FF9843E776E7We found the road above our cottage where we also discovered a For Sale sign attached to that sliver of land. We called Julie, our trusted realtor, and made a ridiculously low offer – a move my husband called a defensive purchase. Julie made our case to the owner, they accepted our meager offer, and our final land grab is complete.

Now we can dig into the mountainside to have even more room for the garage – and I admit that my imagination runs away with me over what else we can do with all this extra space. The only caveat is that my husband has made me promise, for real, that this will be our last move ever. Thank goodness there seems to be enough projects left on this little cottage to last me a lifetime.

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