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A lot of sports psychology research hones in on the idea of attentional focus—where your head is at during a run—and how it affects running economy. For decades, researchers believed that to perform their best, endurance athletes should turn focus inward toward breathing or foot strike rather than focus externally on the sun overhead or the dirt trail beneath their feet. But new research says it’s time to ditch that thought.
Researchers at the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Munster in Germany suggest that the idea of internal, or associative, thinking is more complicated. They say that there are two types of internal thinking—focusing on automated processes (like breathing) and focusing on physical sensations (like how your legs feel).
Interestingly, these researchers discovered that having your mind on those automated processes can negatively affect running economy when compared to paying attention to physical sensations.
“Our argument was based on the fact that consciously monitoring automated processes, such as breathing or the running movement, which you wouldn’t normally think about, hinders automated and efficient control processes, which in turn negatively affects running economy,” says lead researcher Linda Schücker, Ph.D.
Shedding more light on the topic, another study by the same group examined the effects of an external focus, finding that concentrating on your surroundings boosted running economy over focusing on the running motion and breathing.
“Based on the results of those two studies, either focus would be good—external or the way your body is feeling,” said Schücker. “We have also done a more recent study where we compared a focus on physical sensations, an external focus, a movement focus and a control condition, and found that the external focus was the one where runners were most economic. I can definitely say that a focus on automated processes is not advisable.”
Schücker, along with other sports psychology researchers, continue to pursue this topic in hopes of providing further clarity to athletes. In the meantime, the takeaway is to avoid overthinking processes that are already on autopilot. And don’t be afraid to take in your surroundings—not only will it make the journey more enjoyable, it may just boost your performance. Put simply: Enjoy the view.