Turning your attention inwards isn’t always the best way to get through endurance training.
Exercise is the latest in a series of activities that we’re turning ‘mindful’ – after eating, colouring and even working. It’s all about focusing on your body, being in the moment and thinking about the movements at hand. Honing in on how you exercise is obviously beneficial for your physical body as it limits your risk of injury, but also your mental health: clearing your head by freeing yourself from thoughts outside of the gym.
But some exercise might not benefit from that kind of hyper-focus. At least that’s the conclusion of a new paper published in the Journal of Motor Learning and Development. Researchers compared how different forms of attention or distraction influenced runners on a treadmill, including getting participants to focus on the muscles in their feet to turn their attention inwards and counting backwards from three to get out of their bodies but not their heads.
It was while watching a basketball game during the test that runners performed the best. They consumed less oxygen, had lower blood lactate and a lower rating of perceived exertion compared with when they focused on themselves – all signs of working less hard for the same outcome. “The findings of this study demonstrate that running economy is improved and feelings of fatigue are lowest when using a combination of a dissociative-external focus of attention,” suggest the researchers.
It’s not the first study to suggest that the less you think about running, the easier it gets. A 2009 paper from the Journal of Sports Science on endurance sport also found that runners performed better when focusing on their external environment than when they focused on their breathing or movement. Researchers concluded that “for running… it is possible that conscious concentration on the movement impairs automatic control, thus leading to a less economic running style accompanied by a higher oxygen consumption.”
All this is because activating additional muscle fibres by concentrating on the body and movement slows down the body’s processes. When you run, you need the body to be as efficient as possible with energy and oxygen – so by relaxing those fibres, your body can work more effectively under pressure.
When it comes to weightlifting, however, that muscle activation is crucial. While a 2019 paper found that weightlifters could lift more when focusing on external cues, internal focus is best for muscle activation and strengthening. Plus, you shouldn’t ever get distracted when lifting heavy loads or doing high-intensity training as it’s a recipe for injury.
Next time you’re pounding the pavement and find yourself overthinking your footwork or breathing style, the best thing to do might be to just… stop thinking about it? Let yourself get lost in your surroundings and your run might get easier.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).