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Is it Time to Retire the A.V. Hill Model?

A Rebuttal to the Article by Professor Roy Shephard


Recent publications by Emeritus Professor Roy Shephard propose that a “small group of investigators who have argued repeatedly (over the past 13 years) for a ‘Central Governor’,” should now either “Put up or shut up.” Failing this, their ‘hypothesis’ should be ‘consigned to the bottom draw for future reference’; but Professor Shephard’s arguments are contradictory. Thus, in different sections of his article, Professor Shephard explains: why there is no need for a brain to regulate exercise performance; why there is no proof that the brain regulates exercise performance; and why the brain’s proven role in the regulation of exercise performance is already so well established that additional comment and research is unnecessary. Hence, “The higher centres of an endurance athlete … call forth an initial effort … at a level where a minimal accumulation of lactate in the peripheral muscles is sensed.” Furthermore, “a variety of standard texts have illustrated the many mutually redundant feedback loops (to the nervous system) that limit exercise.” Yet, the figure from Professor Shephard’s 1982 textbook does not contain any links between the nervous system, “many mutually redundant feedback loops” and skeletal muscle. This disproves his contradictory claims that although there is neither any need for, nor any proof of, any role of the brain in the regulation of exercise performance, the physiological mechanisms for this (non-existent) control were already well established in 1982. In contrast, the Central Governor Model (CGM) developed by our “small group … in a single laboratory” after 1998, provides a simple and unique explanation of how ‘redundant feedback loops’ can assist in the regulation of exercise behaviour. In this rebuttal to his article, I identify (i) the numerous contradictions included in Professor Shephard’s argument; (ii) the real meaning of the facts that he presents; (iii) the importance of the evidence that he ignores; and (iv) the different philosophies of how science should be conducted according to either the Kuhnian or the Popperian philosophies of scientific discovery. My conclusion is that the dominance of an authoritarian Kuhnian philosophy, which refuses to admit genuine error or “the need to alter one’s course of belief or action,” explains why there is little appetite in the exercise sciences for the acceptance of genuinely novel ideas such as the CGM.

Furthermore, to advance the case for the CGM, I now include evidence from more than 30 studies, which, in my opinion, can only be interpreted according to a model of exercise regulation where the CNS, acting in an anticipatory manner, regulates the exercise behaviour by altering skeletal muscle recruitment, specifically to ensure that homeostasis is maintained during exercise. Since few, if any, of those studies can be explained by the ‘brainless’ A.V. Hill Cardiovascular Model on which Professor Shephard bases his arguments, I argue that it is now the appropriate time to retire that model. Perhaps this will bring to an end the charade that holds either (i) that the brain plays no part in the regulation of exercise performance; or, conversely, (ii) that the role of the brain is already so well defined that further research by other scientists is unnecessary.

However, this cannot occur in a discipline that is dominated by an authoritarian Kuhnian philosophy.

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The author’s research on which this review is based is funded by Discovery Health, the Medical Research Council of South Africa, the University of Cape Town and the National Research Foundation through the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP) initiative. The author has no conflict of interest that is directly relevant to the content of the article.

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Noakes, T.D. Is it Time to Retire the A.V. Hill Model?. Sports Med 41, 263–277 (2011).

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  • Exercise Performance
  • Heat Stroke
  • Stride Frequency
  • Hill Model
  • Anterior Insular Cortex