When Is It Helpful to Think about Running While You’re Running?

Basketball players shoot free throws more accurately when they focus on the back rim rather than on the action of their wrist. Weightlifters squat more weight when they think about pushing the floor away with their feet than when they concentrate on contracting their muscles. And runners run more economically when they focus on the road ahead than when they try to run with a high cadence or land on the forefoot or even simply think about their movements without trying to change them.

No matter how you ask your body to perform, your body will perform better if you don’t think about your body. The underlying reason for this seems to be that efficient movement requires a certain degree of receptivity to the environment in which movement occurs. To shoot a basketball well or lift weights well or run well, an athlete’s brain must “listen” to the world as much as it “talks” to the muscles. In the case of running, thinking too much about moving “correctly” makes the body less responsive to the ground, hence more rigid and less efficient in its action.

Many runners find this counterintuitive, but it is a well-demonstrated fact. A recent study by German researchers, for example, reported that recreational runners were more efficient when running while watching a video (external focus of attention) than they were when running at the same pace while thinking about either their movements or their effort level (internal focus of attention).

You can’t run completely unconsciously, however, nor would you want to. There is a minimal degree to which you have to think about your running while you’re running, and at very high levels of fatigue one really seems to have no choice in the matter—or rather, the choice is no longer between thinking and not thinking about your movements but of how you think about them.

As a runner myself, I have developed a few basic personal rules concerning when and how I think about my running while I’m running. In easy runs, which should account for the bulk of any runner’s training, I let my mind wander far away from my body for the most part, but I do periodically “check in” with my body as I go. On days when I’m feeling good, these check-in’s are largely a matter of actively enjoying the act of running—the rhythmic and counterbalanced swinging of my limbs, the sense of floating. On days when I don’t feel great, my check-in’s become more a matter of using my mind to try to increase my comfort level. I do this not by actively changing my form but by trying to find the enjoyment that is being masked by my discomfort and by giving myself little form reminders. More on these in a moment.

When I’m running hard in races and workouts and I (seem to) have no choice but to give more attention to my movements, I employ the very same reminders, but with greater urgency. There are three of them. One is a simple reminder to relax. I find that by telling my body to relax in moments of straining I am often able to reduce my perceived effort level very slightly without consciously altering anything about how I’m running. Perhaps I really am altering something that only sensitive instruments could measure; perhaps it’s entirely mental. But in either case, I think it works.

The second reminder I give myself is to grip the ground and thrust it behind me with my feet instead of passively landing, stabilizing, and pushing off. I think this form cue is more helpful than most because it focuses attention on the point of most direct interaction between body and environment rather than on the body itself. Meeting the ground actively (grip-thrust) versus passively (land-stabilize-push off) tends to minimize ground contact time, which is a strong predictor of running performance and an equally strong indicator of fatigue.

One other reminder that I use both when running easy and when running hard, albeit less frequently, is to run symmetrically. I have some body imbalances that cause me to run with my torso rotated slightly to the left, which causes my arms to do some strange winging as a knock-on effect. Trying to straighten myself out as I run is not something that will help me complete the grueling final miles of a marathon any faster, but there is a place for trying to contain asymmetries and other idiosyncrasies of form that may contribute to injuries, of which I’ve had my share. Unlike the aforementioned reminders to relax and to meet the ground actively, which are universally applicable, this way of thinking about running while running must be tailored to the individual runner. The idea is to think about and correct your particular injury-causing stride “flaws,” not anyone else’s.