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Where Should You Focus Your Attention When Running?

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Yesterday a friend asked me what I think about when I am running. So last week, I wrote a personal blog post about all the things going through my mind during an excellent speedwork session when I struggled BAD. It truly made me reflect on what I think about and wonder what others think about while they run. After listening to a podcast episode and some of my audiobooks, I dove deeper into thought about what goes through the minds of athletes—specifically, the minds of runners during competition.

Running and other endurance sports are a bit different than ball sports. When playing a ball sport, things are constantly happening, and you are reacting; other people are doing things that require your attention and reaction, and it just continues to be a back and forth that you are forced to play a role in actively.

Running and other endurance sports differ because it can sometimes be easy to passively participate, especially during the last few miles of a 50K race. At times you may catch yourself simply going through the motions and hoping that your legs continue to carry you where you need to go.

At other times your legs and mind begin to shut down, and moving at all seems to be s struggle, you have to will yourself to continue, and stopping is always a physical option. Hence, you end up in a mental battle going back and forth with yourself (rather than a component) on whether or not you HAVE to continue. You try to decide if you can stop and if you should stop. You might start getting hyper-focused on a blister, your breathing, the harsh weather conditions, or the number of miles you have left. 

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Is There a Right Way to Think?

When it comes to what you pay attention to during performance, is there a “best” practice to help you? Should we actively engage in what we are doing when we are racing or completing a hard training run? Researchers have long been interested in further understanding the concept of attentional focus when it comes to endurance activities; they have wanted to know what goes on in the minds of distance runners. After much exploration, The research formed the idea that there are two opposing coping strategies utilized. Researchers found that endurance athletes either choose to associate or disassociate during their activity.

Interestingly, Research found that elite athletes are more likely to associate, meaning that they actively take in the sensory information around them. Whereas more recreational or non-elite runners tend to disassociate, they try to distract themselves from the sensory information around them and keep their attention away from any pain or exertion they are experiencing. This idea seems simple enough, either think about what is going on or don’t.

Research has shown that SOME athletes who associate with what is going on around them show improved performance in endurance activities, but some don’t. This could be since associating may cause the athlete to experience an increase in their perception of effort, and for certain athletes, this could cause them distress (Brick, Campbell, & Swan, 2019).  

 

What Does and Does Not Work?

Brick et al. (2020) dug into this idea to find further useful information that could help individuals improve their performances. They found that not everyone has the skills required to do it “right when it comes to attentional focus.” Many elite athletes have acquired these skills through sports-specific coaching and counseling, allowing elite athletes to understand how to pay attention to the “right” things. If you want to try focusing your attention during a race, here are some helpful Dos and Don’ts that may improve your ability to participate in running in general and improve your performance outcomes.

  • DO NOT focus your attention on internal sensory stimuli (breathing & other effort-related sensations). Without using appropriate cognitive strategies, focusing on bodily sensations may exacerbate your perceived effort and result in an unwanted negative response during endurance activities. 
  • DO look into ways to improve your metacognitive knowledge and skills so that you can better regulate your thoughts.
  • DO allow yourself to focus attention on “chunks” of your race/run. Research has found that by breaking a longer effort into sub-goals, you are more likely to have a positive view of yourself, and it encourages you to continue working towards the task.
  • DO engage in motivational self-talk, cue running technique, and “relax” if possible. Doing these things have been proven to reduce perceived effort as well as improve endurance performance. 
  • DO run with a friend if you are newer to running or just getting back into running. Running with a friend allows you to be distracted and may reduce cognitive demand.  This is good because, as mentioned earlier, having to think about running when you do not have the appropriate cognitive experience or tools to do so can be detrimental. Simply put, new runners often have not yet developed the ability to self-regulate during endurance activity, so distraction can help to get through it. 

 

Like many things, practice results in improvement. Elite athletes have had many trials and errors and often external support for learning the tips and tricks they need to succeed during their performance. Over time, changes in brain connectivity occur, leading to improved cognitive efficiency and the ability to self-regulate. TRAINED endurance runners have more powerful connections between brain regions associated with executive functions, attention, and motor control.

So, if you are newer to running or just coming back, know that it is normal to feel “weird” about your ability to control your thoughts during running. You may feel unfocused or anxious when you try to control them or lost when trying to decide what to think about to be most effective. With practice and time, and maybe some self-directed research on metacognition, your ability to appropriately handle your thoughts and effectively direct your attention will improve.

Sources

  1. Brick, N., Campbell, M., & Swann, C. (2019)., Metacognitive processes in the self-regulation of endurance performance, Endurance Performance in Sport (pp. 81-95). Routledge
  2. Brick, N. E., Campbell, M. J., Sheehan, R. B., Fitzpatrick, B. L., & MacIntyre, T. E. (2020), Metacognitive processes and attentional focus in recreational endurance runners, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18(3), 362-379

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