Wouldn't it be wonderful if we found a way to make our toughest workouts easier? Well, we are not trying to do the impossible - purely that if you have a shift in where you focus your attention then you workout could see some significant improvements. Let us explain...
Focusing your attention is something we all struggle with from time to time. Some days you will sit down and complete every task on your to do list and then some, whereas the next day the only thing you can focus on is that new Netflix series you’ve suddenly become enthralled in.
However we’re not here to talk about the next best series, we’re here to think about how much do we really focus when exercising?
Focus when exercising is a topic that has been subject to large volumes of research in sports psychology literature and it is agreed that a performer’s focus of attention has a significant effect on learning, retention and performance of a number of motor skills*.
That seemed obvious right? But what has that got to do with you?
There are a couple of ways that this can affect you but let’s give you some of the background. We should all know what focusing your attention means. (Check out this paper to understand it in all its glory).
When exercising there are 4 different ways we can focus our attention:
Even when performing high-intensity work a change in focus can make a difference. Volumes of research now confirm that when you are performing ‘high work’ activities such as a HIIT class the best way to improve performance is to focus on something external/dissociative (far away from your body and what you are doing) as this will improve your performance by a significant amount. We’ve translated that as: ‘don’t think about the burpees but maybe think about the wine you can have after…?’
Now the interesting bit; why does focussing in this manner during high-intensity exercise increase your performance? Because you let your body effectively perform all our autonomic processes, something it was designed to do. Otherwise when thinking about your body, how you feel, how you should be breathing etc., you mess up this highly efficient and automatic machine. Interesting right? Even down to the physiological markers your body works more efficiently when your big old brain is out of the picture as you have a significantly lower Heart Rate, Breathing Rate and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) (Ryder, 2012).
It is safe to say that overthinking is a problem for many of us and science proves that by doing so, we’re only making life and those 30 burpees your PT has told you to do, much harder. We know first hand that focusing your attention outside of the body works, we actually completed a study for our dissertation at university and 80% of all participants who ran on a treadmill found that when told to ‘focus on their position on the treadmill’ as opposed to ‘focus on the burning sensation in your legs’ could run for longer and at higher speeds due to it being perceived as easier’.
We’re not saying completely forget about the fact that you are working out, but next time you head to the gym or a class, when muscles start to burn and you think ‘I can’t’, try and make an effort to focus on something other than how hard it is, you will be amazed at how much stronger and more powerful you can be and how much more you might actually enjoy it.
*References: Bell & Hardy, 2009; Castaneda & Gray, 2007; Perkins — Ceccato, Passmore, & Lee, 2003; Vine & Wilson, 2010; Wulf, McNevin, & Shea, 2001)