March 18, 2014

How Does Thinking Affect Performance?

Recently, I was listening to a Ben Greenfield podcast that referenced a cool study that Ben was invited to take part in. Basically, participants would do some sort of cognitive task, then run a 5K on a treadmill – and researchers wanted to see how the type of cognitive task they did would impact their performance. What they found was that when the task was cognitively demanding, it “pre-fatigued” their brain (even though the participants indicated they didn’t feel like they were affected) and reduced their physical capabilities. Specifically, after doing the cognitively demanding task, they chose to run at a slower speed and also perceived their exertion levels to be higher. Translation? If you want to perform your best, don’t tire your brain out – it’ll make you run slower and think you’re working harder than you are.

How Does Thinking Affect Performance
This is me running the 2012 HMRRC Winter Marathon, clearly lost in thought as my tunes put me in the zone.

One of the interesting takeaways that Ben discussed was how many people listen to podcasts when they run, and how that might be just the kind of cognitive exertion that would impact their performance. Of course, it depends what podcast you’re listening to, but Ben’s main podcast, Ben Greenfield Fitness, covers all the latest studies and training methods and usually has enough scientific detail that you end up doing a lot of thinking. (Or at least I do, because science has always been my worst subject.) Unfortunately, that study indicates that thinking may tire you out and lead to sub-optimal performance, so perhaps you’d be better off running to music without lyrics, or (gasp) running without listening to anything at all.

I’m definitely one of those runners who needs something to listen to, whether it’s the chatter of a running buddy or a great playlist! I love listening to podcasts while I run, because I find that they take my mind off the task at hand and help me to zone out and think about something else. But that’s a good thing, right? This is backed up by research in a great book I’m currently reading, The Sports Gene by David Epstein:

Thinking about an action is the sign of a novice in sports, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting –paralysis by analysis, she calls it– by singing to himself, and thus preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain.

So if I’m already good at running, thinking about it will make me worse, since it inhibits what my body already knows how to do naturally. But if I’m not good at running (or, I’m not good at running the pace I want to hit), I probably need to focus my mental energy on running faster, rather than zoning out to podcasts. And there lies my problem. After over 100 marathons, I’m great at running a steady pace and relaxing while I cover 26.2 miles, but I’m not so great at pushing it and going for a PR. My paces tend to be all right in the same range (9:00-9:30/mile depending on the course), but I frequently finish a marathon feeling fantastic instead of spent. Heck, after running my current PR of 3:48 at Wineglass Marathon 2012, I felt good enough to head back to mile 25 of the course and then run the final mile again with my then-boyfriend! Oops.

But the fact that I almost always listen to something when I run may be the source of my problem. I can hit some pretty killer paces in classes at Tread or Barry’s Bootcamp (when I’m focusing on the treadmill’s incline and speed and trying to see how well I can do), but when I do a “race” and I’m listening to podcasts/music, I tend to settle back into that comfortable pace instead of really pushing it. And I kind of have a feeling I’m not alone in that 🙂

Something to consider for your next race: how much sleep did you get beforehand, yes, but how much rest did your brain get? Perhaps your pre-race regimen should include some non-cerebral feel-good sitcom watching (did someone say Friends?!) while you rest your legs. And, while it may be uncomfortable to ditch the iPod music/podcasts, sometimes “getting comfortable being uncomfortable” is exactly what’s needed to hit your peak performance.

(But while you go ahead and do that, I’ll probably still be chugging away with my headphones in. Sometimes you have to run for the fun of it rather than to hit a specific time!)


8 thoughts on “How Does Thinking Affect Performance?”

  1. I very, very often listen to podcasts, if not music, when I run. Ben’s is always so interesting!

    I suppose the theory makes sense … though I don’t see myself ditching the tunes anytime soon :). I like running, but I just need that extra “go”!

    Though if you think about it, the “go” is probably just counteracting itself …

    1. Sounds like you’re of the same opinion as me: nice to know, but I’m going to ignore it and do what makes me happy 🙂

  2. Glad to see you are reading “The Sports Gene by David Epstein” – it’s an excellent book.

    Now I know why my runs are so crappy after I have mentally exhausting dreams.

    1. Jamoosh, it was your recommendation and excellent posts that led me to it! Just took me a while to get it from the library 🙂

  3. Yes, one of the reasons it is hard to work out after work! I always get a much better workout on the weekends or during the day when I am off from work.

  4. This is so interesting! I never came across these studies, but it is something I have thought about for a long time and suspect have influenced me a lot in the past. A few years back I would go to the gym just after finishing work, and at that time I was tracking several metrics for my performance. Basically, over the course of months of tracking data, I began seeing a pattern of poor performance on very stressful work days.

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