The Stress of Life

Pain is the name of the game when it comes to performing. We’re all used to dealing with a large amount of effort during our workouts and races. Generally we attribute this to pain coming from the muscles themselves and the effort that it is taking to generate our speed. More recently though, research has discovered that external stressors such as mental fatigue or emotional stress can impact how we feel that pain and how far we can push.

Experiments such as those by Samuel Marcora’s group in England have shown that external stressors can impact our subsequent performance and our perception of effort. In other words, if we do a mentally demanding task such as some math problems, or go through an emotionally experience, such as watching a very sad movie, and then go exercise, our perception of how hard we are working will be skewed.

While scientists are still trying to figure out the exact reasons why this occurs, one of the interesting changes that occur is that our ability to focus shifts. If we are drained from a mental or emotional experience, our focus during the challenging parts of the workout drifts. We’ve all experienced this during physical fatigue, where we might start to zone out or see our pace slowly slip as we shift our focus from racing to how much pain we are feeling. The same phenomenon seems to occur following mentally demanding tasks, where our focus shifts away from the task at hand and to more distracting thoughts.

While all of this seems like a negative with a message to avoid things like taking a school test before a race or hard effort, if we flip the idea on our head, I think we can use these external stressors to our advantage. Instead of thinking of mental fatigue as a negative, we should think of it as a way to work on combating this loss of focus. If we can work on maintaining our attention during a workout, we’ll likely translate that to an ability to maintain focus longer during a race under heavy physical fatigue.

            Let’s go over three different ways that we can use these techniques to work on our ability to maintain focus during hard exercise.

Upping your mental game- Focus Factors

  1. Interval focus

During our hard interval workouts, we simulate race type efforts by breaking the race down into intervals with a short rest break in between. This is done so that we can get a higher volume of work in at various paces than we would be able to if we did the workout straight through. These short rests obviously give us a physical break, but what they also do is give us a mental break. It gives us a short period of time where we can let go of our focus and mentally regroup before the next interval. What we can do though is keep the physical part of this break but do various tasks to force maintenance of attention during the rest. During the break for instance, I have athletes perform a mentally demanding task on their smartphone or Ipad. There are a variety of simple mentally challenging apps and games you can use for free. We’ve used everything from simple mathematical problems to cognitive psychology tasks such as the Stroop test.

Example: 6x800m run at 5k race pace with 2min rest where most of that rest is spent doing a mentally demanding task.

2. Mentally depleting long runs

During longer races, such as the marathon, it’s not unusual to let our mind drift during the crucial portions or the race. As our fuel stores are running low, our cognitive ability to maintain focus on a task actually decreases. We can simulate this in practice without running the full marathon though, by simply doing a mentally demanding task, such as taking a challenging academic quiz or test in the hour leading up to our run. This should pre-fatigue us mentally, leading to a decrease in focus during the actual long run. The key then is to know that this increase in effort and decrease in focus is coming, and to work on combating it and mentally staying in it. With my athletes I’ll remind them during the middle and later stages to stay focused, but if you’re solo you can simply set your watch to beep every mile during the later stages to act as a reminder to keep your attention on the run.

Example: Perform 30min of math work, and then go for a 14-16mi long run.

3. Treadmill/Boredom runs

Lastly and perhaps least appealing is simply working on dealing with boredom. It’s a lot easier to keep pushing whenever we are running through a scenic park or neighborhood, than if we are staring at a wall, going nowhere on a treadmill. If we can perfect running hard or long when all we have is our thoughts in our own head instead of nice scenery to distract us, when it comes to race day our ability to focus will be greatly increased. Next time you run on the treadmill, ditch the music and the TV, and do a run where it’s just you, the treadmill, and your thoughts. If you can build up to being able to do an hour plus with no aid from music, your on your way to increasing your focus ability.

Steve Magness is the author of the new book The Passion Paradox. He coaches professional and collegiate runners. You can sign up for his weekly performance newsletter below.

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