There’s an abundance of things competing for our attention today. In fact, one of the reasons many of us love to run is a simplicity of movement that allows us to focus our attention in any number of directions. Some of us find a meditative-like state while others use the time to solve problems or work on the grocery list. But when it comes time to lace up the shoes and head out for an important run, where should your focus lie?
For sports psychologists, the focus of attention during a variety of tasks has been a fertile area of research over the past decade. The majority of the data suggests that directing attention externally (concentrating on the flight of a basketball after shooting) improves performance compared to focusing internally on the bodily motions involved in the skill (focusing on the actual movement of the arms in the shooting motion).
“Thinking about the biomechanics or the details of a skilled motor performance can introduce variability in the intended motion or action and cause one to ‘choke,’ particularly on high-precision and fine motor activities,” says Dr. Bradley Hatfield, Associate Dean in the Public Health Neuroscience and Cognitive Sciences Program at the University of Maryland.
Sports psychologists refer to this particular mental strategy as attentional focus and have broken it up into two distinct categories: internal focus (also called association) and external focus (dissociation). Associative thoughts are directed internally to bodily sensations, running form or pacing while dissociative thoughts are guided to the outside world in the form of daydreaming or problem solving.
It’s also dissociation/external focus if your favorite running ritual is cuing up your favorite running playlist and singing along in your head.
But unfortunately for endurance athletes, the role of attention in performance is less researched (and less clearly defined). Making matters more complicated, attention and focus are different during the execution of a brief task as compared to a marathon. A runner might focus attention on a variety of different aspects during the course of a run, wandering between an internal and external focus, making it more difficult to ascertain the benefit of a singular type of focus.
Classically, early research—Morgan and Pollock in 1977—suggested that elite marathon runners tended to focus attention internally on things like breathing and running form while novice runners adopted a more external focus.
“In his [Morgan] classic work, it was revealed that elite American distance runners tended to pay attention to their physiological state more often than not. This helped to avoid wasted motion,” says Hatfield.
But this research relied only on a survey of the habits of elite and amateur runners and didn’t directly measure any physiological variables, making quantification of an actual benefit difficult to ascertain.
Much of the recent research involving running and attentional focus involves measurement of running economy, a measure akin to fuel efficiency or miles per gallon. A greater running economy means a runner uses less energy to run at a given pace, allowing them to run longer and potentially faster. And basically anything that allows a runner to expend less resource while running ultimately benefits performance.
In a 2009 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, German researcher Dr. Linda Schucker asked a group of trained runners to focus their attention on three different aspects while running on a treadmill. For three consecutive 10-minute periods, runners focused on the running movement, on their own breathing, and on their surroundings. The results showed that running economy increased when the runners focused their attention externally on their surroundings. An internally directed concentration on breathing or the running movement actually led to an increase in work.
The researchers observed that a focus on actions considered to be automatic, like breathing or running form, lowered efficiency, leading to the conclusion that, “Runners who wish to optimize their running in terms of movement economy should be encouraged to implement an external focus of attention in their runs.”
A 2014 study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology tried to further differentiate an internal focus of attention. Thirty-two runners ran for 24 minutes on a treadmill at a moderate intensity. For each 6-min block, participants had to direct their attention to different things (running technique, breathing, or general body feeling) or received no instructions. They found that while an internal focus of attention negatively influenced performance when directed at the things the runners couldn’t easily change (like breathing or running technique), an internal focus on how the body generally felt during exercise did not disrupt movement efficiency. Translation: It’s OK to check in with your body to see how it feels.
It should also come as no surprise that music helps distract attention away from internal thoughts and may also reduce fatigue. In a scientific study reinforcing common sense, researchers found that subjects ran faster during the first third of a simulated 5K race when listening to music, leading them to conclude that music allowed runners “to retain a reasonable focus on more pleasant external cues.”
So why does an external focus seem to help? Well, like many aspects of mental skill training, choosing the appropriate focus of attention may boil down to perception of effort. Since many link perception of effort with mental and physical fatigue, techniques that reduce a runner’s perceived effort generally have promise in improving performance. In other words, “tricking” your brain into believing that your body isn’t tired may reduce perceived fatigue.
Dr. Samuele Marcora, co-author of a recent review article on the topic titled Psychological Determinants of Whole-Body Endurance Performance, sums it up like this, “Dissociative thoughts may be useful (and possible) during a low to moderate intensity training session and, by reducing perceived exertion, may allow you to do a higher volume of training.”
Marcora modifies his advice, however, for those that want to run at higher intensities. “For anybody who wants to perform decently, paying attention to your perception of effort (internal association) and other information like distance to finish line (external association) is important because these information are needed to pace optimally.”
There may be some individual flexibility in choosing the correct mental strategy while running, but finding the optimal focus can improve performance and increase the enjoyment and satisfaction of exercise. What’s not to like about that?