Monday, 29 October 2012

The Relationship Between Performance and Fatigue - With Illustrations from the Beachy Head Marathon


This blog was going to be my Beachy Head Marathon race report, but my quick update told quite a bit of the story.  So instead I will try to reply to a comment left by Dale in response to my UltraStu story.  So this race report will be slightly different, with some ideas first, then some application to the Beachy Head Marathon.  I will try to keep the post to marathon length rather that an ultra!

Nearing the Finish of the Beachy Head Marathon

In some of my previous posts, which I since have edited and now made available as articles, I have introduced my Race Focus Energy (RFE) Fatigue Model.  The more of the recent academic literature I have read, the more I am convinced that my RFE model has many, many merits.  I have just finished reading an enlightening book titled "So It's Tough Out There, Is It?" written by Barry Durdant-Hollamby.  Who?  No, I wouldn't expect many runners out there to have come across any of his writings, however, what I am discovering is that my enhanced understanding of trail running, for example, in realisation of simple concepts such as 'Your expectations largely determine your experiences", is applicable to ALL aspects of life.  Barry's book, on communication within business, has helped me realise this.  Oops, sorry, I got side tracked there!  It was the quote at the end of his book that I wanted to share: "A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous, and then dismissed as trivial, until it finally becomes what everybody knows." William James.

At the end of the Beachy Head Marathon, I was chatting with one of my training mates Kev, and his brother Ian, who had both just finished the marathon.  Ian asks me "What do I need to do to prevent me from running out of energy towards the end of a marathon?"  His question was referring to biochemical / nutritional energy, with additional reference to physiological fatigue.  I gave a quick reply with something like, you need to understand the Race Focus Energy concept, and commented that a brief explanation wasn't really possible there and then.  So Ian and Dale have prompted tonight's blog post.

The Race Focus Energy (RFE) Fatigue Model was developed in response to the existing scientific model of fatigue, known as the 'Catastrophic' model, being rather flawed.  Tim Noakes, known for his book "Lore of Running", and now more recently his book titled "Waterlogged" was probably the first person that encouraged me to start thinking 'laterally', with his Central Governor Fatigue Model.  My RFE model takes on board his Central Governor model, but builds on this, with specific application to trail running. 

The three components of my RFE model are:
(i) Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
(ii) Race Focus Energy (RFE)
(iii) Muscle Activation

But most important is that the BRAIN is CENTRAL to these three components!  In a recent Tim Noakes academic article published back in April titled "Fatigue is a brain derived emotion that regulates the exercise behaviour to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis" Noakes lists the many many factors that have been shown within the research to alter endurance performance.  This large list includes:

"The biological state of the athlete at the start of exercise including the emotional state, the extent of mental fatigue, or sleep deprivation, the state of recovery from a previous exercise bout, the level of motivation and prior experience, the degree of self-belief, including superstitious beliefs. Factors specific to the event that alter performance include monetary reward, prior knowledge of the exercise end-point, and the presence of competitors, especially if they are of similar ability. A number of chemical agents including the stimulants–amphetamine, caffeine, pseudoephedrine, modafinil, and the dopamine/noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor bupropion as well as the analgesic, acetaminophen, or the analgesic naloxone, or the cytokines interleukin-6, or brain IL-1β have all been shown to alter exercise performance as do placebos.  Psychological skills training can also improve subsequent exercise performance.

Conscious deceptions that improve performance include using the Ramachandran mirror to observe the non-fatigued arm when working with the opposite, listening to music, the provision of inaccurate information provided by a clock that runs slowly or of the actual distance to be covered, or of the pace of a prior performance that had been deceptively increased by 2%, or of the true environmental conditions in which the exercise is being performed and the athlete’s real core body temperature response. Factors that influence performance and which are likely sensed subconsciously include the degree of arterial or cerebral oxygenation, the size of the muscle glycogen stores, the extent of fluid loss or, and variables relating to the rate of heat accumulation.  Pre-exercise whole body cooling can also improve subsequent exercise performance, including cooling to the lower body, the upper body, the neck, or palms.  Rinsing the mouth with carbohydrate improves performance perhaps by acting on specific brain areas. Running downhill and the presence of muscle damage or muscle soreness are all associated with reduced performance further."
However, the most important observation made by Noakes is: 
"Potentially “everything,” not just those factors identified above and in the figure below, can potentially affect athletic performance.  But that the most important of these effects begin and end in the brain."

Hence, why the RFE model, which has Race Focus Energy at its core, which is situated within the brain, which could be alternatively referred to as mental fatigue, or running out of mental energy, is now being recognised by recent research.  So in terms of fatigue and performance.  The brain is monitoring so many factors all at the same time.  The brain then sub-consciously controls the amount of 'discomfort' it 'passes' onto you, in response to it's 'concern' over potentially being damaged.  The brain controls the level of Muscle Activation both directly, and indirectly via controlling the level of 'discomfort', which affects your Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), which subsequently affects your Race Focus Energy (RFE) and Muscle Activation. One of the functions of TOTAL training that I frequently refer to, is to alter the brain's subconscious 'concern' when experiencing different situations, by having experienced them before!  Therefore having previous sub-conscious 'awareness' of the potential concern, so thereby adjusting the 'thermostat' level, so concern is no longer 'initiated' at such a low level, i.e. there is a reduction in the brain's safety margin / safety reserve!  (Perhaps more on this in another post).

Endurance running performance is not only influenced by all the factors highlighted by Noakes, confirmed by published research, but many other factors, based on my experiences, including: life stresses at work or within family / friends, excitement, enthusiasm, expectations, enjoyment etc. (More details on these other factors that I consider are also important, are described in the RFE article, and illustrated in last year's Beachy Head Marathon race report.)  So performance is influenced by an overall balance of, as Noakes puts it"Potentially “everything,” .

Back to my UltraStu story and the comment left by Dale: "It seems the subject of your story didn't put too much pre-race mental focus into his race? Does this not conflict with the message of most of your posts? Yet he surprised himself with his performance."  Yes, Dale is correct in that I place a lot of importance on having positive realistic expectations, as this will influence the direction that the RPE - RFE arrow is pointing, i.e. consuming more or less RFE corresponding to a certain level of RPE, but also influences one's actual RPE.  So why was it that the subject in my story was able to perform so well?  I conclude it was due to the massive positivity he was receiving from being cheered on, from the excitement, absolute buzz of performing so well.  Hence why I talk about the spiral effect.  Performing well, creates a buzz, creates positivity, which further enhances performance.  It is why 'break-through' races occur.  The break-through is simply 'getting onto' the upward spiral!  The extent at which performing 'above' your expectations, if interpreted positively, can enhance performance can not be underestimated.  At times there is a sense of feeling 'indestructible' as if you are a 'superman'.  Talk to any athlete who has just achieved an extraordinary performance, where it is clearly recognised as one of their best performances ever.  Do they reflect on, recall the difficulty of the performance.  Yes, they may be well aware that they were working at a very high intensity, i.e. they had a high Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE).  But more often than not, they will comment, that even though they knew they were running hard (i.e. a high RPE), it just felt tremendous, it just felt positive, it just felt great!  They should be the most fatigued they have ever been, as a result of performing to the best they ever have, but they don't.  Yes, the massive effect of achievement.  Watch the end of a race, or a football / rugby match.  The winners always appear to have 'boundless' energy.  The losers are totally wiped out, absolutely no 'energy' left at all, but yet both teams, have worked equally as hard!

In addition to the 'buzz' of performing well, the subject in my UltraStu story, also probably had an enhanced performance because there wasn't the usual worry, the often performance limiting 'burden' of wanting to perform too much.  The 'need' to perform, the over analysis of performance, simply thinking about it too much, can hinder performance.   Come race day, the preparation is complete.  During the race, in some ways, it is best to relax, and simply let it happen.  Have belief in your preparation, be within the present moment, and enjoy that moment without any worry or anxious anticipation.


This year's Beachy Head Marathon was won by my work colleague and training partner Rob Harley.  Rob is an exercise physiologist, so he has been 'conditioned' on the now 'dated' way of thinking about performance.  In that it is pretty well entirely determined by physiology, your genes, what you are born with, with some influence due to physical training, up to a certain level, but the overriding concept that performance is determined by physiology.  Well over the last few years, on many, many runs, I have discussed with Rob my differing views on what determines performance.  He started of with my ideas being totally wrong, then 'softened' a bit to, could have a minor role to play, and more recently he has beginning to be more accepting.  Frequently he would state that it was my physiology that was the cause as to why I always beat him in running, previously by over 30 minutes at the Beachy Head Marathon, which gradually over the years, as he became more aware of what factors influence endurance performance, this margin of being beaten was reduced to only 17 minutes, last year, where he finished in 5th place to my 2nd place. 

Then just Tuesday last week, I performed identical physiological tests as he had recently carried out.  We finally had some good quality, reliable physiological data to confirm whether it was my physiological characteristics that 'caused' me to always beat him, or was it due to all of the other factors that my RFE model refers to such as: positivity, expectations, enjoyment, visualisations, etc.  What did the data show us?  In terms of physiological measures, there are three key variables; VO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy.  (Go to a previous blog post for details on these variables.)  Rob's VO2max was far superior to mine, our lactate threshold's were identical, and only was my running economy better than his.  But when our running economy was expressed relative to our VO2max value, the values were very similar.  Rob couldn't believe it.  He immediately questioned the validity of the data.  Were the gas analysers calibrated correctly?  They were!

Rob therefore had a real dilemma.  He could no longer limit his expected performance in relation to me due to his assumed physiological inferiority.  It was hard for him to believe, but him always getting beaten by me was now within his control.  It was due to his limited TOTAL physical preparation.  Yes, his physical preparation was good, and this year had been probably the best it had ever been.  However, prior to viewing the physiological test data on Tuesday he would have never  given even a tiny glimpse of a thought towards beating me.  Just as in the quote from Barry's book above, Rob was finally at the stage where he accepted my ideas on factors that influence performance.  He finally knew, what I already knew, and what eventually others will know! 

Come race day, he no longer simply accepted that I would run away from him.  He stayed in close contact.  Then believe it or not, he overtook me on the long climb between Jevington and Alfriston, around 6 miles.  Rob was now in second place, not too far behind the leader.  The realisation that he had broken through his previously imposed limitations was overwhelming.  He caught the leader and went to the front.  Rob was leading the prestigious Beachy Head Marathon, leading over 1700 runners.  He was in the front!  Even though he knew he was running at a high intensity, and hence was experiencing a high RPE.  However, due to a downward RPE-RFE arrow, running significantly faster than he had ever run in any of his previous five Beachy Head marathons, there was only minimal demand on his Race Focus Energy (RFE).  Yes, it was hard, it was tough, but 'somehow' he was able to maintain the fast pace!

With around 8 miles to go, as he reached the iconic Seven Sisters, a runner joined him and the other runner in which he had been alternating the lead, to form the lead pack of three, side by side.  This third runner then gained the lead and run off into the distance for what seemed an assured victory.  Rob drifted behind, and as he told me later in the pub, he thought to himself, "If I finish in 3rd place, it will still be a good result".  So there wasn't really great disappointment at losing the lead, as he felt more than content with a 3rd place finish.  At this point in the race, I was still around three minutes behind in 5th place, around 100 metres behind 4th place.  So there was a huge gap behind Rob to 4th place.

As the race passes through Birling Gap (less than 4 miles to go) Rob is still in 3rd place, with the leader nearly out of sight, probably around one and a half minutes ahead of Rob.  By this stage, not that Rob knew it, I was on my own in 4th place and now only around one and a half minutes behind him.  Although I was further down the field than I had ever experienced in my previous ten times of running the Beachy Head marathon, rather surprisingly I wasn't in a negative state.  I was actually still enjoying myself, and feeling that I was running quite well in terms of the effort I was putting in, but for some strange reason, it was just not flowing, the rhythm, the smoothness, just wasn't there.  As I gradually pull in Rob, with 2nd place less than 100 metres ahead of him.  I begin to feel content that finishing in second place will be fine.  Yes, I simply reminded myself that I had won this race seven times previously, never finished worse than in 2nd, and Rob had never beaten me.  The interesting conflict I had experienced so far throughout the race was trying to deal with 'overcoming' the argument that I had spent significant time trying to convince Rob, that there was no logical reason why he couldn't actually beat me.  Yes, it was rather bizarre.  In some ways convincing Rob that it was possible, had also convinced me that it was possible.  My self expectations had been altered!

With three miles to go though, I was back on track.  Yes, I will finish second, to the leader way out in front.  Just as Rob, with 8 miles to go was reasonably content with 3rd place.  Although I was still in 4th place, I had decided that I would be content with 2nd.  A good result considering it wasn't really 'happening' for me today.  Little did I know that with less than two miles to go, as I had gained to within a minute of Rob, who by now was closing down on 2nd place, that Rob had changed his expectations.  He began to believe that he could actually finish second.  So instead of nearly running out of energy, which Rob up to a year ago would have simply concluded was biochemical/nutritional energy, but now wasn't so sure, Rob felt he still had sufficient energy, Race Focus Energy.  He picks up his pace, moves into 2nd place, and then immediately sees the leader ahead struggling.  He can't believe it.  There is the chance, something totally unimaginable, that he could win this prestigious marathon with over 30 years of history.  The buzz, the positivity, the excitement is unbelievable.  The suffering from the cramping fatigue legs he had experienced between 8 to 2 miles to go, had suddenly disappeared, his pace further increased, and much to my despair my closing of the gap to Rob was halted.  Rob hits the lead with less than half a mile of downhill running to the finish line.  Nothing is going to stop Rob now, he is 'indestructible'.

Me, having decided back at Birling Gap that I was going to finish a respectable 2nd place, had no other option.  Rob was 'flying' in both physical, but more importantly in a an emotional sense.  So I simply had to overtake the other two runners.  With only half a mile of downhill running left, I first had to move into 3rd place and then close still quite a large gap to the previous leader.  The focus, the rhythm, the flow, the energy, for the first time during the race finally return to me.  Where they had been all day, I don't know.  With some reflection and analysing hopefully I will work it out.  But at this moment in time, I was on a mission.  I mentioned above that although not performing as well as expected I wasn't in a negative state, but now I was absolutely buzzing, the excitement at running these two guys down was amazing.  As the descent starts to get really steep, I guess about 250 metres from the finish line, I move into 3rd place.  Then I finally draw level with 2nd place as we come off the steep grass slope onto the final 50 metres of road, both of us nearly having a potentially horrendous spill as we collide into each other as we pass through the narrow gap adjacent to the cafe.  As I regain my balance, my stride, I have lost half a metre, and now less than 40 metres to go.  Amazingly though, I still don't doubt that I will get 2nd place, which is rather strange, bearing in mind that I only managed to avoid getting last in the fathers 60 metre sprint at school sports day a few years back, only because there was your ideal 'heart attack' Dad also running, (who is only just visible in lane 1)! 

School Sports Fathers Race - Displaying my Sprinting Qualities!

With less than 3 metres to go, I finally manage to move ahead, and the official results show that I beat Paul Barnes by 0.2 seconds!  Daniel Watt finishes 4th, eight seconds behind.  Meanwhile, Rob Harley is still in a state of absolute shock, trying to comprehend the unbelievable that has happened, winning by 47 seconds.  Which only became achievable once he removed his own self-imposed limits!  Susie Casebourne was the winning women in a time of 3:31:29.

Well, I think its a good time to conclude this blog post.  I hope the above has answered your question Dale, and also provided some context for you Ian.  To briefly summarise, performance is affected by many, many factors, but some factors have a larger influence than others.  With positivity, enjoyment, and being within the present moment, combined with not limiting your self-expectation, being the most influential factors!

Time to sign off with a quote from Chrissy Wellington, multiple Hawaii Ironman World Champion: 
"Pain is little more than a conversation between your body and your brain, this is another reason why a fit mind is so important.  The brain is programmed to protest us, and that can mean imposing limits on what it thinks we can or should do.  Constantly push at these limits, because the brain can be way too cautious."  Chrissy Wellington, (201), page 142, A Life Without Limits - A World Champions Journey.

All the best as your re-consider your self-imposed limits.


PS  It isn't too late to donate to the Teenage Cancer Trust, the charity I was running for to raise both the profile of the charity, and a wee bit of money.  Unfortunately I didn't win the race, but hopefully there will be a photo of Rob and I with the mayor of Eastbourne within the local press, as with both of us working on the Eastbourne campus of the University of Brighton, coming first and second, it provided an interesting news item.  If you are interested in making a small donation, please go to the JustGiving page that I have set up. Thanks.


  1. Hi Stu,

    I really enjoyed this post, full of interesting ideas as ever. Its good that the fact that your friend/training parter beat you is balanced by this providing evidence for your ideas. Also the finish is funny in light of your previous blog against people running in together.

    As you know Lizzy Hawkers philosophy of running seems to be similar to yours, from the point of view of positive splits. i.e. Run as hard as you can when you can. Keep on blogging.

    All the best,
    (ran with you on the Olympic torch relay).

  2. Another great post, thank you Stuart. I have two things to say.

    1- "Therefore having previous sub-conscious 'awareness' of the potential concern, so thereby adjusting the 'thermostat' level, so concern is no longer 'initiated' at such a low level, i.e. there is a reduction in the brain's safety margin / safety reserve! (Perhaps more on this in another post)."

    In the last year, I started to believe that this is one of the most crucial aspects of endurance running. I'd like to hear more from you on this subject.

    2- Lately, there's something that really makes me think. I know that you said in one of your earlier posts that you don't look at your HR during the races and just use it to analyze your performance later. But what's your take about using a Garmin to constantly check your pace/splits during races or during hard workouts that are done close to race intensity?

    I started to believe that it may have a negative effect especially on courses that you know very well or races that you have a predetermined time goal. I mean your goal in most races is to win so you may not rely on it too much and focus on the competition. But think of it from a midpacker's point of view. If your goal is to finish Beachy Head or some other road marathon in 3:15, then you know what pace you should average throughout the race. If you see that you're going faster, your initial reaction would be "I should slow down or I'll bonk later" but maybe if you didn't know you're going faster then you'd still manage to hold that pace until the end.

    The flip side of the coin is that you may benefit from the positivity that you're doing better than you thought but I think the moment you realize you're going faster than your goal time, the brain starts to provide all kinds of reasons/excuses to slow you down. So even if your preparation before the race manages to lower the brain's "safety reserve", realizing that you're going faster than your previously imposed limit may help the brain to increase margin again by convincing you that you should slow down.

    I know this seems quite easy to experiment by running some races without a GPS watch but the problem is I'm almost addicted to my Garmin and I think it'd be like running blind.


  3. Thanks for that excellent post Stuart - it works well when you explore your theories through the experiences of other runners as well as your own performances.

    Fair play to Rob for not allowing his focus to dissipate when he lost the lead over the 7 Sisters. Anyone who has run the BHM knows that this is where the wheels usually part company with the vehicle, so that was quite a mental feat he pulled off there.

    Your shoulder-barging sprint finish sounds hilarious - you're obviously still hurting from the Fathers' Race humiliation! I also like the way your competitive instinct has turned a negative into a positive by appropriating Rob's victory as a triumph for your own RFE theories over his 'outdated' physiological models.

    Keep up the good work Stuart - your blog always provokes a lot of discussion amongst the running fraternity, which I'm sure is your aim!

  4. I've read and digested your RFE fatigue model at length and for me the whole thing makes sense. I'm pleased you also touch on the spiritual aspect too. Like I've said before, your message should reach more people. Thanks for sharing

  5. I attempted to write on long reply, but got caught out by blogger comment length limit so I've broken my thoughts in two. Here's Part 1:

    Hi Stuart, I am in awe of your running talent, and intrigued by your attempt to development a useful model of how to run distances races. I don't believe the RFE model is quite there yet though, and believe that running negative splits is more effective than going out fast. I feel that the RFE model could be improved by tying it more strongly into what is happening physiologically to the body. Rather than separate a physiological and physiological aspects I would suggest treating them as one whole. I would also encourage you to be more self critical of your model rather than seek too much vindication of it as you seem to be doing with this post. I say this as I that a little constructive criticism might help spur on improvements to your understanding of the dynamic of running performance. I don't have the answers to this, just another perspective, but I know that progress in science and art is often achieved by challenge.

    Taking a rational hard look at your performance and Rob's, the reason why he beat you this year is because you were 8 minutes slower than last year. If ran was as fast as you did last year you would have lead by around 7 minutes. Rob may have bettered his own performance, and believing in yourself certainly makes a much difference, but it didn't bridge the gap enough to beat you time from last year and was a long way short of that.

    For your own performance you were confident beforehand that you'd beat your time from last year, but you were much slower, still an awesome performance that I couldn't come close to matching, but it's still slower. If you want to find out why Rob beat you then working out why you didn't perform so well will be where you'll find the reason.

  6. Part 2:

    ne thing you might consider is that perhaps our own consciousness is less determined by it's own thread of thought than we usually try to convince ourselves. Could it be our conscious thoughts are far more influenced physiological aspects of our bodies that we like to believe. It could also be that our subconscious through processes also can dominant and allow or suppress our conscious thought to think certain things.

    The following article might be of interest in understanding how the interplay of conscious and hormonal aspects of performance interplay:

    In this case the studies looked at testosterone, but there are also other hormones like adrenalin that work in a feedback loop, with the release of hormones being effected by our physical and mental state/anticipation and our mental sate being effected by these same hormones which in turn affects the hormone release and around the codependent cycle we go.

    So for your own performance could it be that you under performed due to physical fitness going into the race, or hormonal balance that you achieved before and during the race? When you shook what seemed to be holding your back and you got back into the zone perhaps it was hormones or subconscious processes that were preventing you from getting into the zone and running at your peak.

    Another comment I'd make is that fitness markers you've discussed that you and Rob were comparing each other probably aren't that great a marker for distance races. VO2Max certainly isn't a good marker to use as it's been shown in studies not to good at all at predicating marathon race performance, running economy and lactate threshold better ones but still far from complete enough to be a good means for predicting race performance. These physiological markers are used because they are relatively easy to measure rather than being that great at predicting performance. You own experience you describe here proves this, but you go on to suggest that it's your mental preparation and approach that is the difference. Might I suggest that measurements just aren't guaging all the things the physiological aspects that contribute to performance.

    Perhaps one area that differences between you and Rob is your ability to regulate your hormone release during preparation for a race. Consider yourself a high responder, while Rob is a slow responder. Could it be that you naturally or having trained these systems over the years are able to release lots of testosterone, adrenaline and other hormones on demand? These help your performance as well as put you in mental state that makes you believe in yourself.

  7. Superb blog Stuart, very inspiring and perhaps the best yet example of your RFE model working in practice. This blog definitely mirrors the way I am thinking at the moment, though in my case the blinkers are lifting but not yet off!