Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Day-dreaming and focused-attention: making your run feel good while enhancing performance

Trail running before sunrise, the Velobeats 'Chillout II' podcast playing in my ears and the cool spring air touching my skin. One of the nicer ways to start my day and sure to finish with a smile on my face. I feel good, that's for sure. But is this the best way to improve my performance while running?

There is no doubt that psychological strategies can influence our performance during sport and exercise. I have experienced first hand the benefit of learning how to 'embrace the suck' rather than being scared of the pain often associated with racing and competing. I know that scanning my body for tightness and tension allows me to relax those muscles and move more efficiently. 

Being a sponge for all things psychological and sporting I was quite intrigued by a recent study on the effect of different attentional-strategies on physiological and psychological states during running (from the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University - David Neumann and Amy Piercy). 

Getting briefly technical, the article identified the difference between association and dissociation as two broad attentional strategies that can be adopted during exercise. Association refers to focusing on aspects relevant to the exercise, such as bodily sensations and movement, while dissociation involves focusing on things in a way that help block out the exercise (such as listening to Velobeats). Perhaps not surprisingly the dissociation focus tended to produce a higher level of positive emotions, while the association focus often resulted in faster running. 

With association focus, you can also categorise the various approaches according the the direction of attention (i.e. internal or external). For example, an internal focus would be attending to your body and the action of the skill (such as breathing or hip position), while an external focus is about attending to the effects of your body on the environment (such as the movement of the ground under your feet). 

The article suggests that association strategies have the greatest impact on improving performance, and that ones which are externally focused are the most effective.

At this point you may be wondering, "ok, so what does this actually mean?". Well, a few things.

For example, the study found that when participants focused on the distance being travelled (external association) they reduced their breathing frequency. Further, they found that a focus on body movements (internal and external association) reduced oxygen consumption when running. Imagine the impact this could have on an endurance event - running more economically simply by actively focusing on the movement of your body!

I think it is worth acknowledging that individual differences and past exercise history may play an important role in the effects of any particular type of attentional focus. Also, I would be extremely impressed with anyone who can maintain their focus of attention on a single cue for a long period of time!

With the Noosa triathlon on this Sunday, and a 10k run awaiting me, I plan on trying out this information with a basic plan that allows the freedom to shift my attention from time to time:
  • focus on visual markers, such as trees and aid stations, that remind me of movement and the distance I am travelling
  • focus on the ground beneath me moving behind me as a run
  • focus on body movements and cues of good technique - high hips, fast cadence, relaxed shoulders
Knowing that the strategies have the potential to reduce my mood, if I notice myself feeling down I will add in a few moments to visualise the finish line, the after-party and the post-race massage!

Try practicing these strategies in training. For your less intense sessions, perhaps distraction strategies will be more effective - while you might not set any records, you'll be happier and can distract yourself along the way (which will make it more likely you'll stick around for the entire long run!). But for those times when performance and speed are the priority, strategies that focus in on the moment, your bodies movements and the way you are moving through your environment, will be more important and effective. 

For those racing this weekend at Noosa - good luck!


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