There’s a very interesting article in the current issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences about how your mental focus affects running economy (which is basically the amount of oxygen you use to run at given speed, something that we can’t control consciously). In brief, German researchers had a group of subjects run while focusing either on internal cues (their running form or their breathing) or external cues (a video clip of running through the streets). The running economy was significantly better when the subjects were focusing externally rather than internally, with breathing taking bottom spot.
This result fits in with a large body of research on motor control. The theory is that we have to pay careful attention when we’re learning complex tasks, but they eventually become part of the “procedural knowledge” that we execute automatically. Trying to pay specific attention to one part of a complex action disrupts this automated movement.
For example, Beilock et al. (2002) studied this effect on the motor skills of golf putting and dribbling with a soccer ball. In both sports, they found that for experienced players an internal focus of attention led to a deterioration of performance on behavioural measures (higher number of strokes per hole in golf and slower completion of a dribbling course in soccer).
There are other studies in sports ranging from hockey to dart-throwing. (In the latter case, in addition to differences in accuracy, “heart rate dropped just before the throw in the external condition, whereas it rose in the internal one.”) The basic gist is that thinking too hard about what you’re about to do messes things up.
In endurance running, though, it’s not obvious this would apply. In fact, there’s a fairly long literature arguing that “association” (paying attention to your body’s cues) leads to faster running than “dissociation” (thinking about the weather and last night’s episode of House). The authors of this paper cite a bunch of conflicting papers, making it clear that the topic is an open question right now. One of the tricky things about running studies is that measuring success by how far or fast the subjects run gets skewed by their motivation levels. That’s why they chose to use running economy as the outcome — it’s outside the conscious control of the runners.
For the record, the study used 24 trained runners with a mean 10K best of 36:27 and had them run at 75% of VO2max, a typical brisk training run. The external focus proved to be best in this case, but that may not apply, the authors point out, in racing a marathon or other contexts.
One final note: one of the pieces of advice beginning runners are often given is “pay attention to your breathing.” In this study, those who paid attention to their breathing for some reason slowed down their average breathing rate by almost 20 percent, taking deeper breaths and hurting their running economy.
The results for the breathing condition lead to the assumption that breathing, which is a highly automated process, will adjust most efficiently to the needs of the body when it is not subjected to conscious control.
In other words, you take care of the running, and your subconscious will make sure your muscles get enough oxygen.