Learn How (and Where) to Focus Your Attention

Here’s what you should be thinking about during strength-training, while running, and during recovery.

The best runners, we often hear, are black belts in the art of focus. While the rest of us are wondering if we left the kettle on, those at the front of the pack are centering their thoughts on…well, what, exactly? Being focused, on its own, isn’t necessarily helpful – your performance depends on where you focus your attention. The best way to focus depends on the context.

During Strength Training

Hoisting a weight seems simple, but it involves coordinating the precise movements of thousands of individual muscle fibres in the correct sequence. So once you’ve practised an exercise enough that it becomes familiar, your best bet is to let your body run on autopilot. Instead of focusing internally, on the movements of your muscles and limbs, focus on the external consequences of your movements.

For example, in a recent study, subjects produced 12 per cent more force in a bicep curl motion when they were told to pull on the weight as hard and fast as possible compared to when they were told to contract their muscles as hard and fast as possible. The study found similar results for plyometric exercises like jumping, where focusing on pushing off the floor was better than focusing on contracting muscles.


While Running

Much of the research on focus has dealt with tasks involving strength or skill, but running, too, is a complex activity. And, sure enough, a 2009 study found that runners became less efficient when they were told to focus on the movement of their feet compared to when they focused on their environment.

Of course, sustaining focus during an hour-long run requires more effort than doing so during a few push-ups. So stick to periodic form check-ins, after every kilometre, emphasising external cues (“claw the ground”) over internal ones (“snap your legs back”).

Between check-ins, choose your focus according to the context. During intervals, focus on your pace and how it relates to your sense of effort; during a race, focus on your competitors. And during an easy run, enjoy the scenery and let your mind wander.


During Recovery

The physiological benefits of ice baths, compression garments and massages remain hotly debated. But if you have a post-workout routine that makes you feel good, there are reasons to believe it will help you.

In an infamous 1998 study, a group of dental students agreed to have two wounds punched in the roofs of their mouths: one during holidays and the other just before their exams. The holiday wounds healed in an average of eight days, while the exam wounds took 11. Similarly, a Yale study in 2012 found that students who reported higher stress levels took longer to recover their strength after a hard workout.

Your mental state affects recovery, so after a hard run, turn off the focus and relax. Whether it’s by booking a massage or, as coach and author Steve Magness recommends, arranging social time with training partners, unwinding helps ensure you’re primed for the next run.


Subscribe to Runner's World

Related Articles