The Secret to Better Running? Try Distraction

The Secret to Better Running? Try Distraction

Focusing on external sights and sounds, rather than what’s going on in your body, made running feel easier and improved performance.

To make running seem easier, try paying attention to anything other than your body. That’s according to a fascinating new study of the ways in which how we focus as we move can affect how we feel as we move. The study was small and involved novice female runners, but the findings suggest that the more closely runners listen to their bodies, the more draining their running can become, both physically and psychologically. Conversely, the more runners distract themselves from what their bodies are doing as they put one foot in front of the other, the more effortless their run may feel, and the better their performance.

These findings could be useful for the many runners about to toe the line at a fall marathon or other race. The results could have implications, too, for any of us who might wonder how to make our workouts feel as tolerable as they possibly can be.

Exercise is not always boundless fun, as most of us know from experience. It can be physically unsettling as we begin to move and our heart rates and breathing quicken and muscles start to whinge. It has not been altogether clear, however, how best to cope with these discomforts, so that we can stay motivated to eventually become better at our chosen sport or activity.

Many coaches and other authorities, including training partners and friends, will tell you to pay attention to what is going on inside of you, and to focus on the physics of your body, including your form and technique. Listen to your breathing as you move, you may have been told, or count your steps each minute, or think about the process of lifting your knee with each stride.

But some research with athletes suggests that paying close attention to your body and its mechanisms may be the wrong way to make moving feel easier and make you better at your sport. In a much-cited 2003 study, for example, skilled golfers putted more adroitly if they did not think about how to putt than when they did, while expert soccer players dribbled effortlessly through cones when their minds wandered, but tended to bobble the ball if they paid attention to their footwork. (People new to soccer, though, dribbled better when they thought about what they were doing, presumably because they did not yet know how to dribble.)

These results generally align with a widely held theory in exercise science known as the Constrained Action Hypothesis. It suggests our bodies know how to move better than our conscious minds do. The more we concentrate on or consciously tell our bodies what to do, this theory suggests, the less fluid and efficient our movement becomes.

This idea has been borne out in other studies with people practicing a variety of activities. In a 2017 study, for instance, 44 volunteers jumped farther during a standing long jump when they focused on where to land, rather than the correct techniques for leaping, Similarly, in a 2011 study of weight training, 27 men and women activated their arm muscles more fully during biceps curls — meaning their workout was more effective — when they did not think about how to heft the weight than when they did. And in a 2015 study of competitive rowers, the 15 athletes rowed more efficiently when they let their minds attend to almost anything other than how their legs felt as they rowed.

Whether a similar dynamic might play out in endurance sports, like distance running, has been mostly unknown, though. So, for the new study, which was published this month in the Journal of Motor Learning and Development, researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, Iran, decided to see whether runners would perform more effectively if they were distracted, compared to if they tuned in to what was happening with their bodies.

They began by recruiting about a dozen young women. (The research took place in Iran, where studies with volunteers of both genders are discouraged, so no male runners participated.) The women were healthy, active and familiar with running, although none ran regularly. The researchers invited the women to their lab to check everyone’s fitness and top treadmill running speed.

Then on subsequent lab visits, the women ran for six minutes at a time, running at about 70 percent of their top speed, while the scientists monitored their oxygen consumption, the amount of lactate in their bloodstreams and their feelings about the difficulty of each run. During one of these sessions, the women fixated intently on the muscles in their feet, as a way to turn their attention inward. During another, they counted steps, so their focus, while still on their body, was broader and more external. In a third run, they counted backward by threes, taking their minds off their bodies but not out of their heads. And finally, in a fourth session, they watched a video of a basketball game, a blunt distraction that pulled their attention completely away from running.

When the scientists then compared the women’s physical and emotional reactions to each run, they found that video watching easily bested body listening. The women consumed the least oxygen and produced the least lactate when they viewed basketball and were the most distracted. Their running, physiologically, was least taxing then. They also told the researchers that when they watched the videos, they felt the least strained. Their running felt hardest, on the other hand, when they paid attention to their muscles, with the other strategies falling in between.

In essence, the worst strategy for the runners was “thinking about their movements,” said Jared Porter, a professor of human movement at the University of Tennessee, who oversaw the new study. A much better option was to think of something — anything — else.

As is typical of exercise science, this study was small, and the Constrained Action Hypothesis remains only a theory. But as the current findings suggest, distractions are likely to make our running more pleasant and probably faster, Dr. Porter said. So, don headphones and stream music or podcasts (while still monitoring the human and vehicular traffic around you for safety, of course). Listen to birdsong or drink in the landscape as you run outdoors, or watch television as you jog on a treadmill.

“We were surprised by how significant the effects were” when people’s minds drifted away from their bodies, he said.

Many factors no doubt go into how effectively we perform in a sport and how much we might enjoy our workouts. This study looked at brief bouts of running by young, inexperienced female runners. It cannot tell us if the results apply equally to men, older people, longtime runners or people in other endurance sports, like cycling and swimming. “But there is no scientific reason to think they don’t,” Dr. Porter said.


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