A few years ago, German researchers conducted an interesting study that looked at the effects of people’s thoughts as they ran. Volunteers were asked to run on a treadmill at a constant speed while focusing their attention on either their body movements, their breathing, or the external environment. The test was repeated three times with the focus of attention changing in random order until all of the volunteers had completed the test in all three conditions.
While the subjects ran, they breathed into a mask that measured their oxygen consumption. The researchers found that the subjects consumed more oxygen at the same speed when their attention was focused on their bodies than in either of the other two conditions. They consumed the least oxygen when thinking about the external environment. In other words, they ran most economically when their attention was externally focused and less economically when it was internally focused.
These findings are consistent with a large body of reach in the field of human biomechanics, which has shown that people learn motor skills faster when they think about key parts of their surrounding environment instead of the movements of their bodies. For example, in one study, novice golfers improved their putting accuracy significantly more when they were instructed to focus on the club head than when they were told to focus on their hands.
Many running coaches teach runners to concentrate on and control specific elements of their body’s movement as they run. The research I’ve just discussed suggests that this is a bad idea, and sure enough, studies have shown that when runners consciously modify their stride in any way they become less economical.
Does this mean that you should never think about your form when you run? Not quite. Many running injuries are caused in part by correctable abnormalities in stride mechanics. Addressing these form flaws is proven to reduce injury risk. Using mental images can help you in this process. But some images are better than others.
As a coach, I assist runners in correcting form flaws not by telling them how to run—which would turn their attentional focus inward and make them less efficient—but by giving them specific mental images that keep their attention externally focused and allow them to change their biomechanics in a more natural way. Here are three form-fixing mental images to try:
Among the most important running muscles are the hip abductors and hip external rotators on the outside of your hip and backside. These muscles keep your pelvis stable when your foot hits the ground. Many runners don’t activate these muscles properly, which causes the pelvis to tilt laterally, putting strain on the hips and knees and leading to injury.
To activate your pelvic stabilizers during running without turning your attentional focus inward, imagine there’s a short axle between your knees pushing them apart just a little. As with all mental images, don’t exaggerate this one. Creating even an extra centimeter of separation between your knees will serve the purpose of engaging the targeted muscles and may keep you healthier.
Another common form flaw that leads to injury is internal rotation of the thigh (or knock knees), which is caused by weakness in the hip muscles. Bu strengthening these muscles will not correct the problem on its own. You also need to change your gait.
To effect this change without an internal attentional focus, imagine you’re running on a pair of rails like railroad tracks. Try to make your feet line up perfectly with the rails when they land, with your big toe pointing straight ahead. You may need to subtly rotate your thigh externally to achieve this foot alignment.
The reason that overuse injuries are more common in running than in other endurance sports is that running is a high-impact activity. Some runners land harder than others, and runners who land harder get injured more often.
To reduce your impact forces during running while keeping your attentional focus externalized, listen to the sound your feet make when they land on the ground. Now try to run more quietly. Don’t think about changing your stride in any particular way to make it quieter. Just focus on the sound itself and let the mechanics of your stride take care of themselves.