What should you think about while running?

mri_brain.jpgby Steve Wininger, Ph.D.

The Research on Focusing Attention

Most research has examined the attentional focus of runners by categorizing their thoughts as either associative or dissociative. This model proposed by Morgan and Pollock (1977) describes associative thoughts as those that tune into your bodily sensations such as breathing, heart rate, tempo, turnover, shaking out muscle tightness, focused relaxation of certain muscle groups or a part of your body and, eventually muscle fatigue and other not-so-desirable training experiences. Dissociative thoughts are those focused on just about anything but your bodily sensations. It’s a pretty basic strategy that purposely attempts to distract one from thinking about bodily sensations.

In 1998 Masters and Ogles published a review of the research on associative and dissociative cognitive strategies, reviewing a total of 35 studies. With regard to outcomes associated with attentional focus strategies, Masters and Ogles offered the following conclusions:

a) association is generally related to faster running performances,
b) runners use association more in races and dissociation more during training,
c) dissociation is related to lower rates of perceived exertion.

About ten years ago Stevinson and Biddle (1998) proposed and tested what they referred to as a more comprehensive system for classifying runners’ thoughts, arguing that a simple dichotomy is not sophisticated enough to capture the full range of runners’ thoughts. They proposed two dimensions: task relevance (relevant or not relevant to task performance) and, direction of attention (internal or external).

The Plot Thickens with a New Direction in Research on Running

In our research lab at Western Kentucky, we have been studying attentional focus in runners in recent years. In one of our studies (Wininger & Gieske, 2006) we proposed subdividing task-relevant inward monitoring into three separate categories: bodily sensations, task-relevant thoughts, and self-talk. In addition, we developed an instrument that would better capture what runners actually think about, and when they do it. It is called the Measure of Attentional Focus and it consists of six categories of thoughts:

1) Bodily sensations: attending to bodily sensations such as breathing or muscles/body parts.
2) Task relevant thoughts: attending to thoughts about strategy, technique, or goals related to time, and pace.
3) Self-talk: self-statements such as “I can do it” or “Keep going” or “Push it”.
4) Task relevant external cues: time splits, distance markers, terrain, or other runners.
5) Task irrelevant thoughts: thinking about things unrelated to exercise such as planning, daydreaming, or past events/memories.
6) External distraction: attending to music, TV program, other people, or scenery.

We recently conducted a study with participants in several 5k road races. We wanted to examine how the addition of the new categories (2 & 3 from above) might relate with athletic performance. Previous research has suggested that focusing on bodily sensations was most closely associated with better performance. However, we discovered that the amount of time a runner spent focusing on task-relevant thoughts was most highly related to better performance.

In another study with collegiate swimmers (Wininger & Graves, 2007) we found that how one perceives thoughts about their bodily sensations may also affect how those thoughts affect performance. Top finishers judged thoughts about bodily sensations as neutral. Swimmers finishing in 5-7th place judged bodily sensation thoughts as negative. A veteran college cross country coach suggested to us that better runners just check in with their bodily sensations like an instrument panel and use this information to decide how to proceed in terms of altering their pace.

Also, it appears that certain thought patterns characterize different portions of a race. In our study on athletes competing in 5K road races we found that task relevant thoughts were highest during the first and last third of the race. Task-irrelevant thoughts seemed to peak during the middle third of the race. This would suggest that the most difficult portion of the race in terms of maintaining focus was the middle third. Runners would do well to develop strategies or plans for maintaining their focus during this phase of a race.

So What Should You Think About While Running?

Based on our research thus far, we would suggest that if you want to improve your performance try to focus primarily on task-relevant thoughts, check in on bodily sensations periodically and use this information to alter your pace accordingly, use self-talk to get through tough stretches, and develop a plan for maintaining focus during the middle third of a run.

For Shorter Events 5K and shorter – I would also suggest that each runner attempt to systematically identify the optimal combination with regards to allocation of attention across the six categories for specific types of running, e.g., long slow runs, tempo runs, and racing. Note, during races attention to task-irrelevant thoughts and external distracters should be keep to a minimum, especially races of shorter distances such as 5K’s and shorter.

For Longer Training runs – However, it is important to note that task-irrelevant thoughts and external distracters are desirable when completing long training runs as they help to pass the time and may also lower perceived exertion.

About the Author:

Steve Wininger received his Ph.D. in sport psychology from Florida State University in 1998. He has provided sport psychology consultation for numerous collegiate teams: swimming & diving, basketball, volleyball, tennis, soccer, and track & field. His current research focus is on how to increase performance via the manipulation of attentional focus, especially for non-scoring aerobic activities such as running, swimming, and cycling. Steve’s athletic background includes competing at the collegiate level in both cross-country and tennis. He currently enjoys running 5K’s, swimming, competing in USTA team tennis, and hiking with his family. Steve is an associate professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University.

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