Reducing mental clutter has a positive impact on physical performance, a recent study from Ulster University found.
Noel Brick, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the university, and his team had 20 experienced endurance runners complete a number of 3km time trials on a treadmill, each following a different pacing strategy. The subjects could increase or decrease treadmill speed at will – self-controlled. The experiment also involved external-controlled pacing where the researcher controlled the pace of the treadmill.
Post-trial, the subjects were interviewed to rate how frequently they focused on thoughts from attentional (close observing) focus categories on a gauge known as the 11-point Likert-type frequency scale. They were also asked to recall specific thoughts.
When self-controlled, almost all of the subjects focused on pacing, monitoring, the distance display and breaking the 3km distance down into smaller segments. In contrast, when externally controlled, the majority of subjects focused on relaxing, and improving both run technique and cadence. This thoughtful diversion saw the externally-controlled group exhibit a 2% lower heart rate than the self-controlled group for the same results.
“What our research has shown is that too much self-monitoring is associated with an increase in effort perception and a reduction in movement economy,” explains Brick. “If you’re focusing too much on your breathing and technique, you use more effort.”
One proposal of why is simply down to a reduction in central regulation. This ties in with professor Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of fatigue, which suggests our pacing strategy partly derives from mental fatigue. The less brain activity, the more energy spared, the greater the physical force. This doesn’t mean you should let your mind go completely, however. Here’s the benefit-led advice…
“It’s good to check your technique every 20mins,” explains Brick. “For instance, my arms can begin to wander when fatigued, which loses efficiency. So my focus then turns to relaxing the shoulders.”
Exercising with those who are of a similar ability to you will let pacing take care of itself, leaving you to focus on a higher-quality session.
Practising deep breathing – from the diaphragm rather than the top of the lungs – relaxes you, leading to a reduced perception of effort and potential to train and race harder.