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Mental performance has a lot to do with managing distractions. I use the term “distraction” broadly, applying to everything from pain and fatigue to negative self-talk and weather conditions. There are many different things competing for your attention when you’re out on the trail, and the best performers are able to focus on what they need to, when they need to.
Many athletes describe a poor outcome or a challenging scenario as happening because they “lost focus” when in fact it was more likely misdirected focus. Focus isn’t about fixating on a certain thing for a long time, it’s about paying attention to the right thing at the right time.
Enhancing the control you have over your attention is a two-fold process. First, you need to identify where your attention is most productive at various points before, during, and after a race or hard workout. Those details are unique to each person and require reflecting on past performances to determine which attentional styles serve you best depending on the context and situation. During scenarios in the past when your attention has been pulled away from those optimal styles, potentially leading to a negative outcome, uncover what was distracting you and why. Once you have identified some strengths and weaknesses, you can develop the strategies and mental skills to more successfully take control of your focus.
Styles of Attention
In the field of mental performance, we think about this concept in terms of two dimensions – direction and width. The direction of your focus is either internal (directed inward towards yourself) or external (directed outward to the environment around you). And, the width of your attention is either broad (taking in a lot of different things) or narrow (fixated on something specific). Don’t get too caught up in the terminology and it’s not meant to overcomplicate the topic. But, having an understanding of these aspects of focus makes it a lot easier to identify which styles are most productive depending on the demands.
It’s also important to note that we all have a preferred attentional style. The more fatigued and tired we become, the more likely we are to resort to that preferred style even if it’s to the detriment of performance. As you learn a little bit more about each style make a note about which ones seem to be harder or easier for you.
I’ll provide specific examples of each attentional style with a scenario of when it might be productive and when it might be unproductive when thinking about my own racing. Now, this doesn’t mean that each of these scenarios would always be productive or unproductive for everyone. It’s going to be unique to each person and that’s where your own reflection and self-awareness come into play.
Broad/internal – Analysis
Possible Productive Example: Doing a quick body scan before the start of a race to check-in with how you’re feeling and assess anything that might need attention.
Possible Unproductive Example: Fixating on fatigue and all your aches and pains once the race starts to get hard.
Broad/external – Awareness
Possible Productive Example: Taking in the scenery and the views during the early stages of a long race to let some miles pass and preserve mental energy.
Possible Unproductive Example: Getting distracted by all the energy and hype around the start line, letting yourself get too anxious or worked up.
Narrow/Internal – Solving/thinking
Possible Productive Example: Repeating a mantra or engaging in positive self-talk during a challenging part of the race.
Possible Unproductive Example: Playing potential negative race scenarios out in your head the night before a race and letting it interfere with sleep.
Narrow/external – Action/doing
Possible Productive Example: Fixing your eyes on the runner right in front of you and committing to staying with them up the big climb coming up.
Possible Unproductive Example: Getting out too hard with a pack of runners in the early stages of a race and disregarding your race plan.
Strategies for Attentional Control
When I’m working with an athlete on this topic, I have them go through the exact same exercise I just did – identifying examples of each style of attention and how it shows up in their performance in both productive and unproductive ways. But, the work doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve noticed some possible deficits, it’s important to have a strategy to better handle it in the future.
Know your Triggers
First, try to pinpoint possible triggers that threaten to pull your attention away from where it needs to be. For example, fatigue, adverse weather conditions, or the hype of a race weekend. The purpose of this is to be able to notice when certain stimuli are present before your attention actually starts to stray towards somewhere more unproductive, being proactive on maintaining or shifting focus to where you want it.
One strategy for being more in control of your focus is to simply improve the attentional style that you most struggle with. For example, I work with an athlete whose natural attentional style is mostly internal. For that reason, she often misses external cues when competing and describes feeling like she “fell asleep” or “checked out” during important parts of the race. So, we have started doing exercises to improve her ability to focus externally and stay checked into the race.
Cue words or phrases are other examples of an effective strategy for reminding yourself where to direct your focus. When choosing cue words it’s important to consider your desired attentional style. For example, if your intention is to shift your focus more internally then your cue words could be related to things like technique or positive self-talk. On the other hand, if your intention is to shift your focus more externally then it could be related to things like directing your gaze down the trail or counting down miles to the next aid station.
Mental rehearsal and imagery provide another useful opportunity to practice moving between attentional styles based on the different race scenarios. By vividly seeing yourself shift your focus as the environment changes, you’re priming yourself to know how to handle that situation when you face it in a real-life setting. How To Focus On What You Need To, When You Need To
Managing distractions and knowing when and what to focus on is crucial for success in any performance setting. It’s not about getting really good at one style of attention, but rather being able to constantly shift in and out of different styles to most productively respond to the long list of variables that a race will throw at you. Many athletes may not have put much thought in this topic, but it’s one of the most important mental skills to have on the trail.
Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance.