The Role of the Attention in Racing

I ran a workout last Saturday with Lanni Marchant. She was tuning up for the upcoming track and field World Championships in Moscow, where she will be competing in the marathon, looking to improve on her 2:31 personal best, and hoping to make a run at the Canadian national record (which is 2:28.)

The workout was more about pace-feel than about building endurance or suffering -- the total volume of work was only 4.5 miles at marathon pace -- but like all good marathon workouts, what it primarily required was concentration. By the end of the workout, with warmup and cooldown, we ran almost 10 miles on the track, and much of it was at specified pace.

It ended up being harder than I expected, and the reason was that marathon pace is slow enough to require only minimal concentration, but it's fast enough to require some concentration. Put another way, the pace is not hard enough to draw the mind to it by itself. I found myself having to remind myself to pay attention, and this in turn reminded me just how important this quality of attention is in our sport. (I should also say that watching Lanni's focus on these intervals and in her racing may have had something to do with this.)

Lanni running 2:31 at Rotterdam

Paying attention is crucial to the sport of distance running. I think we all know this intuitively: so much of racing and even training is sustaining a hard effort, and what sustaining requires is attention, first and foremost. You might even say that at a very fundamental level, attention and endurance are the same thing: as goes our attention, so we go.

Attention is a trainable quality -- like the rest of our lives, it has an aspect that is inborn or genetic, but it is also governed to a great extent by habit. When we examine human attention carefully, we see two things immediately. First, it it is always directed somewhere. Common expression says that sometimes we aren't paying attention at all -- but this is never true. It's more accurate to say that the attention is turned elsewhere than that it goes away entirely. Consciousness can be distracted or dissipated. It can lose focus and intensity, but it never quite goes away so long as we are conscious -- even in sleep the attention conjures its own images to keep itself occupied. Second, we notice that the attention only rests on one thing at a time. Although these days many of us are "multi-taskers," this multi-tasking is performed through rapid shifts of the attention from one object to another. We never actually attend to two things simultaneously.

How frequently we switch the attention, how concentrated or diffuse it is, and what it chooses as its objects varies depending on the time of day, how much coffee we've had, our own basic temperament, the relative calm or chaos of our environment, and finally our life-long habits of attending.

So, when it comes to attention in the sport of running, the question becomes how can we optimally occupy the attention, given that it is firing constantly? How often should the attention shift? And to what should it switch when it does? Once we've answered these questions, we can then turn to the question of how to train these habits of attention.

In my experience, in analyzing attention in a race, its best to break the race into 3 different parts: early, middle, and late. Each of these difference stages of racing requires different modes of attention because they make different demands on the athlete.

The early part of the race requires relaxation, patience, and control. The challenges of the early segment of racing are primarily ones of restraint. The body and mind, being fresh, have loads of available energies that must be marshaled. Here it is important to keep the attention somewhat diffusely organized. It's okay and maybe even positive to let the mind wander a bit. Minimal attention ought to be paid to the most basic aspects of positioning: Am I in contact with the folks I am competing against? Is the body relaxed and flowing? And are my emotions calm and stoic? If the answer is a general yes to these questions, the attention can be allowed to wander to any non-stressful topic, and disassociate itself from the stresses that will soon demand its full energies.

Your blogger doing a less than ideal job of marshaling early race energies.

The middle part of the race requires rhythm, confidence, and increasing aggression. The challenges of the middle part of the race are primarily ones of staying positive and active in racing, avoiding doubt, and maintaining a strong competitive rhythm. The middle stage of racing begins with the onset of fatigue. Fatigue brings its close companion, doubt and hesitation. As the athlete becomes fatigued, naturally the attention will be drawn into a narrower circle. The body will occupy more of the attention as balance and coordinated form and the integrated motion of running begins to require active labor.

With this increasing focus of the attention comes the risk of mental fatigue. It's in this stage of the race that mental confidence is extremely important. As the mind examines the body and its state of fatigue, it will surely suggest the possibility that it will no longer be able to maintain the effort. The confident runner anticipates these thoughts and knows not to let his attention linger on them, instead refocusing on the rhythm of running, the tactics of racing, and the important task of not slowing down. The middle stage of racing requires great bodily attunement and a cold willingness to let signals of its possible breakdown pass quickly out of consciousness. It's precisely here that the attention has its toughest challenge to stay on task.

Your blogger demonstrating mid-race attention.

The final part of the race requires an abandonment of restraint, and outward focus on the finish line and one's competitors, and a refusal to listen to the body. The end of the race begins when shifting into the final kick for home, and it is characterized by extreme competitiveness and self-abandonment. If the middle stage is one of intense internal bodily association, the end of a race requires a 180 degree shift in focus. The best athlete will have an almost out-of-body experience where the attention is fully shifted to the competitive goals of racing: running a certain time, beating a certain competitor, or in the case of extremely long distances: merely finishing the race. The athlete ceases to identify himself with his body and becomes fully identified with whatever counts for victory in the situation. This is an act of total attentional immersion, and it requires an almost transcendent level of focus.

Your blogger demonstrating late-race transcendivity.

If it has not already become abundantly clear in this analysis, being able to control the attention, to shift it to the appropriate center at the right time, and to harness and conserve it -- and then release its full power -- is essential to the art of racing. Identifying the necessary moves of attention and watching the attention as it moves in racing is obviously a key aspect of training the attention, but it is also useful to look at classic workouts in terms of how they teach attention.

1. Interval work at 5k pace and faster. Intermediate length intervals are the perfect tool for training the attention for the middle stages of racing. Interval training induces the fatigue of the middle stage of racing, but breaks it up into chunks that are mentally manageable. When running intervals, it is always important to practice relaxation, even pacing, and most importantly in terms of the mental aspects of racing dealing with the small doubts that will arise and learning to let them pass by without distracting the mind.

2. Sustained tempo runs. These runs are great for training the attention for the first stage of racing and the transition into the second stage. The early moments of a tempo run require discipline, restraint, and relaxation. It could be said that tempo running is an attempt to extend the first stage of racing as far as possible, delaying the onset of fatigue and the mental intensity that is necessary to deal with it.

3. Hard and fast speedwork. In addition to their physiological effects, 200 and 300m intervals run at a very fast pace help develop the mode of attention needed for the final stage of racing. When done relatively fresh, these intervals create little fatigue in the early moments of the interval, allowing the runner to concentrate on giving his full attention to the act of running fast and hard. The later stages of the interval, with intense fatigue settling in quickly but not really limiting power, prepare the runner to disassociate completely from the feeling of his body and focus on charging fast.

None of this is earth-shattering insight, but in an age of distraction, I think it's exciting to think of running as a tool a somewhat counter-cultural practice of the development of attention. Although this was a mechanical post focused on basic ideas of training, I think its philosophical dimensions are also important to note, at least in passing.

Our ethics, our politics, family, love, friendships -- even happiness itself -- depend keenly upon our qualities of attention. "We are what we eat," but even more, we are what we attend to. That being the case, I'm not sure there's a more direct path to wisdom than analysis of and care for habits of attention.


  1. This advice may be even wiser in the life context than it is in the running context. I plan to read this again before my next marathon, but I hope it will also help me make the proper decision next time my kids are vying for my attention while I'm zoning out on the computer.

    Hope all is well with you, Jeff!

  2. My session last night was a short hill session before a warm down at marathon pace... well the MP turned out to be half marathon pace, far to fast... good thing I have more sessions like that before my next marathon.

    To go out at MP on a normal run is easy, but as the 2nd half of a session it is hard to get the right pace.

  3. Tried paraphrasing this blog post on our easy run this morning. My take away was focus, couldn't recall "attention". Bottom line for me, lots of practice and then more practice.

  4. I think there is something to be said for active mental presence during easy runs as well, not just workouts. Focus on efficiency, on comfortable movement, and really indulge in that sensation of lucidity. Those falsely accused junk miles quickly gain value.

    1. Alex -- I briefly considered going into this on easy runs, but really there are so many types of easy runs that it's sort of hard to parse. But yes, when the easy runs "work" you end up as you say in a 'sensation of lucidity' that is important for training purposes but also pretty sweet in its own right.

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Hi Jeff, as a longtime distance trail runner, I find what you've written to be beautifully accurate and articulate. Thank you for the distillation of the process! And also, as professional Birth Doula (aka birth support, birth coach) and childbirth educator, your post above is remarkably similar to the birth process! So much so that I think I will forward to a number of past and current clients!


    1. That's fascinating, the relation between racing and birth. Sounds like a great blog post. Thank you for sharing, Sarah. Happy running!


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