People who have never been coached before, sometimes wonder if the difference that separates them from elite runners is purely physical. It most certainly is not. Physical superiority plays a part but competitive running is one of the most mentally intense sports there is. If you know how to focus, you can be sure that you’re performing at the peak of your abilities.
Previously, I featured an article about associators and dissociators and how music can tell you about what kind of runner you are. Associators are intensely focused individuals that are able to keep their focus on their running for their entire run. Dissociators are individuals who use distractions to keep their focus away from the run. These are people who listen to music, watch TV on treadmills, let their mind wander, and hate running on a track because they are “running in circles” and “that’s boring”. One of them is not necessarily better than the other, but elite runners are almost always associators.
Understanding that associating and dissociating is not black and white is key to improving. Think of it as a scale that you fall on between the extremes of associating (complete focus) and dissociating (complete distraction).
By adopting the strategies that elite runners use, you can improve your own performance. That extends to your mental focus – being an associator. You can learn. You are not bound by genetics or ability and with practice can improve your mental muscles. As your mental focus improves, you’ll slide towards becoming an associator.
How to Focus Like an Elite Runner
There are many techniques that runners use to keep their focus sharp during runs and races. We’ve covered system checks here already and we’ll cover more in the future.
In general, you need to make sure that you are actively focused on yourself and your run. If your mind is wandering, you’re not associating. You should be thinking about your form, your strategy, and your goals. To me, it’s a little like teaching yourself to be “in the zone”, which is widely covered in sports psychology. You are completely focused on running and blocking out all distractions during the race. If you’re running a marathon – and you don’t notice any of bands playing on street corners as you run by – you’re doing it right. If you’re in the city, it might be hard to find a place where you can run without stopping – so you may want to practice focusing on a treadmill. Running on the treadmill is only boring if you’re focusing on one of the many distractions available – so if you’re completely focused, the suggestion shouldn’t seem too bad.
Learning to become an associator is hard at first and it really helps to have a coach. If you don’t, try running with music with a beat of 180bpm (to match your stride – this will also help you keep your cadence fast enough and consistent). The constant beat will help you focus on your form, which is a gateway to complete and total focus. There is a catch – music can become a crutch. Listening to music is one of the most common ways that people use to dissociate when they’re running. The key is that you’re using it as a metronome (literally running with a metronome will have the same effect) and not as a distraction.
Most importantly, remember that transitioning to an intensely focused runner won’t happen overnight. Like anything else, it’s going to take time and practice to really figure it out. So stay positive, and remember that improving your mental toughness applies to all parts of life – not just running. It’s worth it.