What do you think about when you’re racing? (besides the finish, of course.) Is it how you’re holding you arms? How heavily you’re breathing? Or is it what you’ll have for dinner?
The two most common responses likely fall under two general categories that sport psychologists have dubbed associative thinking and disassociative thinking. Associative thinking is an internal focus of attention that includes thoughts related to one’s performance and body movements. Dissassociative thinking is an external focus of attention that refers to random thoughts related to anything and everything else.
Previous research has found, that if you ask those at the front of the pack — the elites and others who finish towards the top — most athletes are using associative thinking and maintaining a high internal focus. Middle and back of the pack runners are engaged in disassociative thinking with a more external focus. This is why we’re often told to “think like an elite” and focus on how we’re doing during the race.
But before you start getting critical about where your arms are or how many steps you cover every minute, be cautioned that over thinking these details might not be the best approach, either.
A recent study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology asked a sample of active runners to perform a treadmill test at moderate intensity. Every few minutes participants were asked to focus their attention on either a specific aspect of their running (movement execution, breathing, how they felt) or simply on whatever came to mind. At the same time, researchers measured the runner’s oxygen consumption to see what different thoughts were related with different running economies.
In a somewhat surprising result, runners displayed the greatest running economy when thinking about both whatever they wanted (assumed to be more external and disassociative thinking) or when they simply focused on how they subjectively felt. When asked to concentrate on their body movements and their breathing, oxygen consumption actually increased, which could slow them down in the long run.
So what does this mean for you?
While it’s important to focus on how you feel when racing, it may actually be less beneficial to focus on specific aspects of your running, especially those that are not easily controlled such as your running form, biomechanics or breathing.
Instead, try checking in every few minutes to ensure you are still feeling fine and that things are OK while not obsessing over details beyond your control. And hey, if that means deciding between having pizza or pork chops for dinner, take your time, mull over it and you’ll be that much closer to the finish when you decide.