Attentional Focus

During running there are many different sources of information we can attend to. We might focus on bodily sensations like breathing, engage in a conversation with a running partner, or monitor competitors around us, for example. The evidence suggests that each of these foci are likely to have an influence on how we feel during a run and, ultimately, on our pace and performance. More so, some thoughts may be more effective to resist the urge to slow down or stop. In this article we will briefly explore the effects of different types of attentional focus and how each might impact on endurance performance.

It is common during running – especially for beginners – to attend overwhelmingly to bodily sensations. This might include a focus on breathing, muscular fatigue, thirst, or an irksome stitch. An excessive focus on these sensations alone may increase effort perception, however, ultimately making a run feel harder and the urge to stop more intense. This does not mean that we should ignore these sensations, however. In fact, monitoring physical sensations can provide some important information to help performance and this is a strategy typically used be elite runners. Excessively hard breathing at the start of a race might mean you are going too fast, for example, and more likely to encounter the strong urge to stop before you get to the end. Thus, periodic monitoring of bodily sensations can be useful to optimise your pace during events from 5k to ultramarathons. With practice, you will improve your pacing abilities and develop a sense of what pace is appropriate for the distance you are running.

It can also be helpful to link periodic monitoring of bodily sensations with other cognitive strategies. Noticing an increase in tension in your hands or shoulders can be a useful cue to try to relax your upper-body, for example. You will find information on active self-regulatory strategies, like keeping relaxed, or motivational self-talk elsewhere in our resource pack. In terms of what we focus on, however, these cognitive strategies can be useful to make running feel easier and to optimise performance as a result.

We can also attempt distract ourselves from effort-related sensations during running. There are two types of distraction strategy. The first is active distraction, when we intentionally distract from an activity by engaging in conversation with a running partner, or occupying our mind with mental tasks (e.g. doing maths calculations). In contrast, involuntary distraction occurs when irrelevant objects or events grab our attention, like an attractive, scenic view, or a daydream. By taking our mind off effort-related sensations during running, distractive thoughts can reduce a focus on physical sensations and running may feel easier as a result. Distraction has also been linked with improved adherence to exercise programmes and greater enjoyment of endurance exercise activities. Distraction may result in a slower pace, however. Thus, distraction may not be appropriate if your goal is to run a fast time, but can be helpful to avoid running too hard and encountering the urge to stop before the end.

Finally, we can also monitor external information relevant to our running performance. Outward monitoring might include a focus on competitors, a race route, or on task-relevant information like split-times or speed information on a GPS device. Similar to both distractive and active self-regulatory thoughts, focusing on other runners can reduce a focus on bodily sensations, whereas focusing on distance or speed information can be useful to inform pace-related decision-making. Focusing on specific features of a route, such as a lamp-post in the near distance, the next mile marker, or the end of a lap, can be a useful strategy to “chunk” or mentally break a long, challenging event such as a marathon down into smaller, more manageable segments. This attentional strategy is often used by experienced endurance athletes during races in combination with other strategies like relaxation and motivational self-talk.

Our focus of attention can have an important impact on running performance; in terms of pacing, coping with effort-related sensations, and resisting the urge to stop or avoiding it in the first place. Although it may be difficult to do at first, we suggest it is best to avoid excessively focusing on bodily sensations like breathing or muscular fatigue. Instead, periodically tune into these physical sensations and use them as a source of information to optimise your pace. Alternative attentional strategies can also useful to cope with the challenge of distance running. These might include a focus on keeping relaxed, engaging in a conversation with a running partner, or mentally breaking the event into smaller chunks of distance or time. These strategies can help to reduce a focus on effort-related sensations, optimise your pace and, ultimately, resist the urge to stop during running.

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