Should I Tune In or Tune Out During My Run?

How to think on challenging runs depends on your intention. Here’s what the research says. Runners often develop a type of tunnel vision. Case in point: In 2006, Scott Douglas went to India to cover a five-day stage race in the Himalayan foothills. The day before the race, he and the eventual winner went for a run from the race headquarters in Mirik. There was a small lake with a perimeter path nearby that was perfect for the occasion—they could easily settle into a rhythm and crank out several 10-minute loops until it was time to call it a day.

When Douglas got back to the lodge, his wife, Stacey, asked, “Wasn’t that amazing!?” It turned out that Stacey had also gone to the lake for a stroll and had come upon a couple dozen women celebrating the Diwali festival. Clad in bright yellow and red wraps and head scarves, they squatted next to the lakeside trail with big bowls of bananas, melons, other fruits, vegetables, and flowers as offerings.

Douglas can relay these details, thanks to a photo Stacey took, but he hadn’t noticed them—not on the first loop around the lake, or the third, or any other one. Without making a conscious decision to do so, he’d been entirely focused on his run.There are far loftier examples of intense concentration in running history. In the 2004 Olympic marathon, Deena Kastor didn’t realize she was in the bronze-medal position until the final 100 meters. During the 2018 Boston Marathon, which was run in an apocalyptic rain-and-wind storm, eventual winners Des Linden and Yuki Kawauchi didn’t know they had taken the lead until well after doing so.

Some of this seeming tunnel vision stems from runners focusing on what are known as “process goals,” such as running the next mile as well as they’re able, rather than thinking about outcomes, such as winning an Olympic medal. Also, during hard efforts, seasoned runners are good at suppressing strong emotions like anxiety that can lead to focusing on distracting and irrelevant information.

Let’s look in more detail at how successful runners hone their ability to concentrate on the task at hand to the point of seeming oblivious to much of what’s going on around them.

Throughout his career as one of the world’s leading exercise psychology researchers, Noel Brick asked athletes ranging from beginners to Olympians a simple question: What were you thinking? The answers provide fascinating insight into what athletes think about during peak performances. Brick has lost count of the number of times he has sat captivated as athletes recounted how they struggled with, and overcame, the challenges they experienced when racing and training.

One of the most common themes that emerges is that running fast is incredibly hard, both physically and mentally. This is true for novices and Olympians alike. But what separates the best from the rest is their ability to extract exceptional performances through a process of deep focus and concentration. These athletes know what they need to focus on and, more importantly, have the mental tools in their kit to do it. Take this example from an elite cross-country runner whom Brick interviewed following one of her toughest races:

I went through two and four [kilometers] on the back of the leading group. And going into the third lap, I started falling off the leading group. And it was everything for me to stay attached [because I was distracted by a spectator] and suddenly I just lost a second’s concentration, and it was like, “Don’t lose concentration, concentrate now,” and I covered the move. I finished second in that race. But if I had fallen off that group, I wouldn’t have gotten back on and that would have been it.

Triumph in a footrace—however that’s defined for you—often requires winning the battle that takes place within your mind. For athletes like the one quoted above, this means resisting a range of different distractions. Some are external, like a spectator who momentarily captures the athlete’s attention. Others are internal thoughts, like worry or the sometimes-irresistible urge to stop or quit.

So how do they do it? What tools do athletes use to remain focused and on task? Just as important, how do they get their concentration back if they lose it?

The first answers to these questions began to emerge in the late 1970s. Across a series of studies, psychologist William Morgan and exercise physiologist Michael Pollock interviewed recreational and elite distance runners to discover what they focused on during training and competition.

Their findings revealed that national- and world-class marathoners adopted what Morgan and Pollock called an “associative strategy.” As described in a classic study, these runners “paid very close attention to bodily input such as feelings and sensations arising in their feet, calves, and thighs, as well as their respiration; . . . [their] pace was largely governed by ‘reading their bodies’; . . . [and] they constantly reminded or told themselves to ‘relax,’ ‘stay loose,’ and so forth.”

The details of what elite runners paid attention to when racing surprised the research team. Up until this point, the consensus was that it was best to tune out from bodily sensations. After all, if running fast was hard, then surely paying less attention to physical feelings would be better than focusing in on them.

But Morgan and Pollock soon realized that these elite marathoners were different from the recreational athletes they usually interviewed. Not only were their physical performances miles apart, literally and figuratively; so, too, were their mental strategies.

What non-elites preferred to do was adopt a range of distraction strategies. In other words, they preferred to tune out from the physical sensations they experienced. They did so by thinking about past memories, imagining listening to music (remember, this was pre-earbuds), singing, or, for one runner, visualizing stepping on the faces of two coworkers she detested.

With these two separate ways of thinking, we’ve now got a dilemma. What is the best way for athletes to think? Which type of strategy helps most: tuning out or tuning in?

These were the questions that grabbed Brick’s attention when he began to plot his PhD research in 2012. By 2014, he had published a review of 112 studies on the attentional strategies of endurance athletes—that is, what they focus their attention on. In it, he sifted through the evidence supporting distraction, on the one hand, and association, on the other.

Before we can answer this question, we first need to consider a much simpler one. What do we mean by best? If better—that is, faster—performance is the goal, then athletes probably want to avoid being distracted at all costs.

But that’s not the full picture. In Brick’s review, he noted that distractions, such as daydreaming, conversing with a training partner, or focusing on scenic views, can help to reduce boredom and make a run more enjoyable. In other words, when the outcomes are less about going faster and more about feeling better, then distraction is best. A recreational runner whom Brick interviewed put it like this:

My mind just wanders whenever I’m out. It’s as if it’s a freedom. It’s my time and it’s me thinking about my things, you know? You’re not sitting in the house or you’re not working or you’re not thinking about things. You’re just thinking about your things.

What these insights tell us is that distraction has its place in our mental tool kit. It can be a useful way to manage our emotions, especially when we need to switch off, chill out, and get away from it all.

One great way to do this is to spend time in natural spaces, such as the countryside or a park. Studies have found increased brain activity relating to calmness and meditative thoughts when people exercise in a park versus crowded urban settings. In the latter, brain activity linked with negative thoughts such as rumination has been found to be much higher than when people exercise in more natural settings.

But this is only half the story. Although positive distractions like nature have benefits, performing to the best of their capabilities is a more immediate priority for athletes during competition. In these instances, tuning in might be a better approach than tuning out.

When Brick dug deeper into the results of more than 35 years of research, he soon discovered that the effects of association strategies on performance were much more nuanced than previously thought. When athletes focused excessively on bodily sensations like breathing or muscle soreness, their performance suffered. Doing so made tasks feel harder. In contrast, strategies like keeping relaxed or optimizing movement technique improved performance, sometimes without increasing how hard a task felt.

An intricate study involving 60 experienced runners helps to explain some of these nuances. These individuals completed three 5-kilometer runs, once on a laboratory treadmill, once on a 200-meter indoor running track, and once on a flat outdoor road route. Half the runners—the association group—were asked to tune in every 30 seconds during each run to the heart rate and pace readings on their watch. The other half were assigned to a distraction strategy of listening to music through headphones. All participants were instructed to run as fast as they would like during each 5-kilometer run. The research team also recorded how good or bad runners felt, how hard each run was perceived to be, and their final 5-kilometer times.

In line with research on other distraction strategies, the findings revealed that those who listened to music felt calmer and more tranquil during their runs. Runners also felt better when running outdoors than they did in the indoor settings.In terms of performance, however, runners in the heart rate and pace-monitoring group ran faster than the music group by an average of 1 minute and 47 seconds. In a sport in which participants obsess over every second of a race time, that’s a significant difference!

Just as interesting were the effects of location on performance. Although 5-kilometer times were slower on the treadmill than both the track (by 3 minutes and 46 seconds) and the road route (by 4 minutes and 2 seconds), running on the treadmill felt hardest. This was most likely because of the treadmill environment, devoid of mental stimulation or distraction. In this setting, athletes probably focused on little else other than how tough their run felt. In contrast, running the outdoor road route, the fastest location of all, felt easiest.

Periodically monitoring bodily sensations and tuning into pace allows for better performance. In contrast, tuning out might result in a slower pace but can help make an activity feel more pleasant. In effect, our focus matters, and when best performance is a priority, then having the mental skill to focus effectively is essential.

posted Saturday September 23rd