I Think I Can, I Think I Can: A New Take on Brain Training


By Sheryl Rosen,


Think about the Turkey Trot or your last race. As you neared the end, you felt the same old symptoms of a hard effort: aching muscles, burning lungs, and legs that refused to go any faster.

We know why it happens, right? Glycogen stores fade as our hungry muscles power us forward. Lactic acid builds up, causing our muscles to lose their normal pH. Our bodies struggle to bring enough oxygen to our cells as we approach VO2 max, which represents our maximum capacity to utilize oxygen.

Now stop and prepare to rethink everything you know about exercise fatigue.

What if the symptoms we know as fatigue are really just warning signs of potential physical fatigue and not fatigue itself? What if our brains, through a self-protection mechanism, cause our muscles to burn so we therefore slow down and prevent possible muscle damage or some other physical danger well before it occurs?

This is the premise of Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald. At first, the title was enough to make me cringe. Not some cheesy positive-affirmation-touting, can-do-attitude-peddling book, I thought. I already know the drill – think positive thoughts, believe in yourself, envision accomplishing your goal, and have a race strategy.

Boy, was I wrong. Don’t judge this book by its cover. Brain training, Fitzgerald’s unique method, is much, much more physiology than psychology. Anything but trite, it mixes down-to-earth explanations of anatomy and emerging exercise science with simple training tips, refreshing perspective, and full 20-week training programs from 5K to marathon.

The existing theory of exercise fatigue, which Fitzgerald refers to as the catastrophe theory of fatigue, tells us we feel tired when our muscles become depleted of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for short efforts or glycogen for longer efforts. Likewise, our muscles produce lactic acid as they work. As our production of lactic acid outstrips our ability to metabolize it, the extra builds up and causes feelings of fatigue every Gulf Winds member knows all too well.

However, the backbone of Fitzgerald’s method is the increasingly supported idea that our brains cause our bodies to feel tired so that we’ll slow down long before we cause real physiological fatigue. Our brains supposedly send us these signals of exhaustion well in advance of true depletion of our muscles’ energy sources and before the buildup of lactic acid drops our muscles’ pH to a dangerous level. In contrast with the catastrophe theory, this is the brain-centered model of fatigue.

According to Fitzgerald and the researchers he cites, it all comes down to the body’s need to maintain homeostasis. As we all charged through Southwood on Thanksgiving morning in search of grand prix points or perhaps some quality exercise before a big family dinner, the strenuous effort caused us to begin to deplete our glycogen stores and build up lactic acid. The brain-centered model proposes our minds caused us to feel exhausted prematurely and points to studies showing we feel exhaustion when plenty of glycogen remains and the majority of our muscle fibers have not been utilized.

The first part of Fitzgerald’s book is dedicated to explaining the theories, but the book’s gold lies in the suggestions for pushing back our bodies’ safeguarding mechanisms so we may perform better all while still never coming close to true muscle damage, acidosis, or glycogen depletion.

Among the author’s suggestions are training yourself to gradually improve your stride through visualizations of small physical cues, cross training in ways that simulate running movements, becoming more in tune with physical sensations of soreness and pain, and strategically encouraging that elusive feeling of being “in the zone.” Fitzgerald’s brain training program also emphasizes what he calls target pace training, which is training within a specific pace range in order to prepare your brain for the physical stresses of a race effort.

It is too often in running books we obtain credible advice or stories from coaches and athletes only by suffering through poor writing. Not so with Brain Training for Runners. As an added treat, Fitzgerald is a runner and triathlete as well as a capable writer, so he speaks our language and aims his methods straight for our needs.

The volume’s only downfall is its packaging of the training program as a complete reinvention of the wheel. The findings behind the brain-centered model of fatigue may be novel, but the training program does advocate many already widely utilized workouts and established patterns of intensity progression.

While I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of the training program outlined in the book, the reasons behind Fitzgerald’s methods are at the very least extremely intriguing. Or maybe it’s all in my head.