Why Breakthroughs can be dangerous? The Set Point Theory of Fatigue – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


First off, Thank you so much to all of you who have continued to make my new book, The Science of Running, a success. I cannot express how grateful I am for all of you who helped make it a success and wrote, emailed, or tweeted at me. I’ll have more on that in a week or two.

Why Breakthroughs can be dangerous?

It’s happened to us all. We’ve hadthat momentous breakthrough race where we glide along effortlessly, waiting for that pain to rear it’s ugly head, but it never does. We smash our personal bests, feel no pain and marvel at how “easy” it was. Excitement builds in our minds as we begin to realize that there may be more left in the tank. That if only we had pushed to that point of pain, we’d be able to run even faster. Anticipation builds until the next race, where we know that next time we can run faster. It simply makes sense, why wouldn’t we be able to. It came so easy to us the last race.

More often than not, we are knocked back. Perhaps we run close to our PR or perhaps we settle back towards our previous norm, but inevitably the next race hurts a whole lot more. How could this be? Why do our fastest races, our breakthroughs, often feel so much easier? And why can this be a dangerous thing?

The Consequences of a Breakthrough

The reason a breakthrough often feels easier is a topic in and of itself. We could delve into the psychological state of flow, or attribute it to a release of opiods or other such hormones. We could delve into the activation of certain brain areas, or we could take an integrated approach and talk about how breakthroughs feel easier simply because it’s a building of feeling better than expected as we progress through the race, combined with a high degree, and perhaps ever increasing, degree of importance.

The real question I want answered is why we return back down to earth. I know in my own running, my best races often hurt the least. I can clearly recall my state record race in HS, still 10 years after the fact, for the simple reason that it was a breeze. I remember running 4:03, knowing in the first 200m, because we went out in 31ish that I wasn’t go to break 4, but that I’d probably run 4:03. I remember looking around with 300m to go and thinking how the crowd was pretty excited and getting into almost a rhythmic chant. But I also remember feeling very little pain. Pain wasn’t holding me back that day, I was simply running.

I also remember a race where I ran 4:15 for a mile in an extremely windy race where I came through 1200 in 3:02-3, then had a fabulous battle with my teammate Moises Joseph in the last 400 to “outkick” him running a pathetic 73sec last lap. That race hurt sooo bad, and it was pathetic. It was a joke. I could do that in practice and it not hurt that bad.

After my Sr. year in HS where I ran 1600m races in 4:03, 4:01, 4:03, 4:01mi, and a few 4:05-6 thrown in for good measure, I suffered the consequences of a breakthrough. The good races felt so easy. I expected, not consciously, but subconsciously that all the good races would feel that easy. And in doing so, I unknowingly changed my set point.

What’s a set point you ask? Think of it like a thermostat. We are set at a certain temperature and if the temperature in the room varies by too much then the thermostat pulls the temperature back to the set point. In obesity research there is a theory called a set point theory, where we tend to operate in a weight range that acts as our set point. If we try to lose weight, it’s almost doubly more difficult than it should be because we are fighting our set point.

In fatigue, there is a similar concept emerging. It is that we have a set point for our expected race experience. If you read my book, The Science of Running, I devote a whole chapter to the concept of fatigue. Briefly I covered how fatigue is essentially a battle of our body trying to remain in homeostasis and our drive trying to push the boundaries of that as much as possible.  When it comes to pacing during the race, our body runs a calculation based on how hard we expect the race to feel at that point versus how hard we actual feel, combined with how much drive (or how close to the finish we are).

De Konig et al (2011) came up with a “Hazard score” which is is a simple metric that looks at how hard we are working and take into account how much longer we have to continue to work hard for. They defined it as:

Hazard= Momentary RPE * Fraction of the distance remaining

Using the Hazard score, in my book, I took it a step further and defined performance as:

Performance = Mismatch (Expected Effort/Actual Sense of Effort)

Where: Expected Effort= Previous Experience+ Psychological drive (importance)

Actual Sense of Effort= (Internal + External feedback)* Hazard + current Psychological Drive

The set point comes into play here.  We have a set point for how hard we expect the race to be, or in the formula above “expected effort”. This combines psychologically and physiologically. We also have a set point for how far away from homeostasis we can travel with various physiological stressors (pH, muscle glycogen, temperature, etc.) before our body pulls in the reins and says we’re venturing too far out.

The set point is the key feature though. It provides the anchor from which our brains run their calculation. The set point for race difficulty appears to be developed, according to research, via past experiences. We know how long we will be racing, distance wise, and how long it should roughly take. Then based on prior experience, our body knows roughly how quickly pain, or effort, will increase over the length of the race. It also knows what to expect in terms of rate of metabolic stress and the likes. The bottom line is based on prior experience, with a dash of current mood, expectations, and level of importance thrown in; we have a pretty good rough picture of how the race should go.

As we race, our experiences help to further shape that race model.

Changing the Set Point

Which is where breakthrough and set back races come into play. As I alluded to earlier, breakthrough races often feel much easier than we expect them to. While this is all conjecture, It seems plausible to me that this ease of a faster race can actually hamper our “set point.” The unusually easy race pulls our set point and expectations of the effort of a race towards the easier end. Next time out we assume that the race will come just as easily, and when it invariably doesn’t and instead the pain and effort regresses to normal, we are caught by surprise. We are then in a situation where our actual effort is much higher than our expected effort. So we inevitably slow down.

If we don’t fix our expectations quickly, a downward spiral can occur and we are left endlessly chasing that perfect race, where there is no pain and we glide along effortlessly, instead of letting that race come to us.

To me, this is a cautionary tale to explain why the ball doesn’t keep rolling sometimes after breakthroughs. It goes beyond a simple regression to the mean. Instead how we frame success and failure matters.

How do we set it?

The truth is, we don’t know exactly how we come up with our set point race template. We know that manipulate conscious knowledge effects it, as well as some subconscious parameters. There are better authors than myself to explain the current research (I suggest reading Samuel Marcora’s, St. Clair Gibson’s. and Andrew Renfree’s separate work on the topic of fatigue and pacing). But what I take away from it is that framing matters, perhaps a whole lot.

Our reaction to races and the effort in which they entail can help shape our future races and expectations. It goes beyond simple confidence or lack there of. How we react to and internalize race efforts provides the framework from which we go into and judge future race efforts.

Next time you have a good or bad race, stop and think about how you are framing the race.  It just might matter more than you think.


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