Where To Focus Your Attention While Running

In 1977 Bill Morgan and Michael Pollock wrote one of the first and most influential papers in sports psychology. They interviewed a group of elite distance runners, asking the runners what they thought about in the heat of competition. They then asked the same question of midpack runners.

Morgan and Pollock got two distinct answers. The elites said that they monitored the body while racing. The midpackers said  they tried to distract themselves by thinking about stuff unrelated to the race.

The two approaches were named “associative thinking” (the elite way) and “disassociative thinking” (the midpacker way). Before long, average runners everywhere were encouraged to develop an inward strategy like the elites: Shoulders relaxed – check. Arms moving smoothly – check. Breathing controlled – check. Stride light and quick – check.

A new paper in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology concludes that the associative vs. disassociative approach is too simplistic. The authors suggest a more finely grained distinction: Don’t think about things you can’t easily change, like your breathing and form. According to what’s known as the “constrained action hypothesis,” focusing on the automated running movement or the even more highly automated process of breathing is counterproductive. But it’s okay to ponder your general feelings, or to think about the things that usually flutter in and out of your mind.

The researchers reached this conclusion after measuring the running economy of 32 veteran runners who typically logged 32 kilometres a week. The subjects had their oxygen consumption measured while:

1: thinking about their breathing;

2: thinking about their form;

3: thinking about their feelings; and

4: thinking about whatever typically occurs to them while running.

Under conditions 1 and 2, the runners’ oxygen consumption increased significantly over 3 and 4, which yielded similar results. “Both internal foci of attention directed to automated processes (running movement, or breathing) led to worse running economy than the internal focus on the feeling of the body and the control condition,” the authors report.

Because the new study measured actual oxygen consumption, it has an objective outcome. In contrast, the 1977 study by Morgan and Pollock simply asked about mental tactics. The new study also confirmed a 2009 study on “attentional focus” and running economy.

On the other hand, the running economy test is a sub-maximal test. It can’t determine success in an all-out race. And, as the authors note, an inward focus “could lead to negative thoughts, especially when the sensations become unpleasant as duration proceeds or intensity increases.”

At these times, it might be best to visualise the post-race festivities.


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