The best runners, we often hear, are black belts in the art of focus. While the rest of us are wondering if we left the kettle on, those at the front of the pack are centring their thoughts on... well, what, exactly? Being focused, on its own, isn't necessarily helpful – your performance depends on where you focus your attention. The best way to focus depends on the context.
1/ During strength training
Hoisting a weight seems simple, but it involves coordinating the precise movements of thousands of individual muscle fibres in the correct sequence. So, once you’ve practised an exercise enough that it becomes familiar, your best bet is to let your body run on autopilot. Instead of focusing internally, on the movements of your muscles and limbs, focus on the external results of your actions.
For example, in a recent study, subjects produced 12 per cent more force in a biceps curl motion when they were told to pull on the weight as hard and fast as possible compared to when they were told to contract their muscles as hard and fast as possible. The study found similar results for plyometric exercises such as jumping, where focusing on pushing off the floor was better than concentrating on contracting muscles.
2/ While running
Much of the research on focus has dealt with tasks involving strength or skill, but running, too, is a complex activity. A 2009 study found that runners became less efficient when they were told to focus on the movement of their feet compared to when they concentrated on their environment.
Of course, sustaining focus during an hour-long run requires more effort than doing so during a few press-ups. So stick to periodic form check-ins, emphasising external cues (‘claw the ground’) over internal ones (‘snap your legs back’).
Between check-ins, choose your focus according to the context. During intervals, focus on your pace and how it relates to your sense of effort; during a race, focus on your competitors. And during an easy run, enjoy the scenery and let your mind wander.
3/ During recovery
The physiological benefits of ice baths, compression garments and massage remain hotly debated. But if you have a post-workout routine that makes you feel good, there are reasons to believe it will help you.
In a 1998 study, a group of dental students agreed to have two wounds punched in the roofs of their mouths: one during holidays and the other just before their exams. The holiday wounds healed in an average of eight days, while the exam wounds took 11. Similarly, a Yale study in 2012 found that students who reported higher stress levels took longer to recover their strength after performing a hard workout.
Your mental state affects recovery, so following a tough run, relax. Whether that’s with a massage or, as author and running coach Steve Magness suggests, enjoying social time with training partners, relaxing helps ensure you're primed for the next run.