On subsequent lab visits, the women ran for six minutes at a time, at about 70 percent of their top speed, while the scientists monitored their oxygen consumption, the amount of lactate in their bloodstream and their feelings about the difficulty of each run. . During one of these sessions, the women focused intensely on the muscles in their feet to turn their attention inward. During another, they counted steps, so their focus, while still on their bodies, was wider and more external. In a third run, they counted backwards by three, taking their thoughts off their bodies, but not their heads. And finally, in a fourth session, they watched a video of a basketball game, a blunt distraction that completely distracted their attention from running.
When the scientists then compared the women’s physical and emotional responses to each run, they found that watching videos easily trumped listening to the body. The women consumed the least oxygen and produced the least lactate when watching basketball and were the most distracted. Their running, physiologically, was the least taxing back then. They also told the researchers that they felt the least tense when they watched the videos. Their running, on the other hand, felt most difficult when paying attention to their muscles, with the other strategies in between.
Essentially, the worst strategy for the runners was to “think about their movements,” said Jared Porter, a professor of human movement at the University of Tennessee who oversaw the new study. A much better option was to think about something – something else.
As is typical of exercise science, this study was small and the constrained action hypothesis remains just a theory. But as the current findings suggest, distractions are likely to make our running more enjoyable and likely faster, said Dr. porter. So, put on some headphones and stream music or podcasts (while still monitoring the human and vehicle traffic around you for safety, of course). Listen to birdsong or drink in the countryside while running outside, or watch television while jogging on a treadmill.
“We were surprised by how great the effects were” when people’s minds wandered from their bodies, he said.
There are undoubtedly many factors that affect how effectively we perform in a sport and how much we enjoy our workouts. This study looked at short periods of running by young, inexperienced female runners. It cannot tell us whether the results apply equally to men, the elderly, runners, or those who participate in other endurance sports, such as cycling and swimming. “But there’s no scientific reason to believe they don’t,” said Dr. porter.