Mental Focus and the Happy Runner

Matt Killingsworth did his PhD research at Harvard. For his thesis, he developed an iPhone app that allowed people to track when they were most and least happy during the day.

Matt’s conclusion: people are happiest when they’re focused in the now.

(Matt gave a TED talk on his work: “Want to be Happier? Stay in the Moment.”)

This is important stuff for runners.

In the early 1970s, someone studied runners’ basic mental style. They identified two patterns, which they dubbed “associating” and “dissociating.”

Associaters keep their minds focused when they run. As they run, they’re continually thinking about what they’re doing – carefully monitoring their pace, breathing, posture, running form, fluid intake, fuels, fatigue, etc. When their attention strays, they patiently bring it back to a focus.

The other group of runners allow their minds to drift. They believe that letting their attention wander leads to creative thoughts and profound inspirations.

There’s nothing wrong or immoral about either style. But the first group were overwhelmingly more successful in achieving their competitive goals.

Again, that’s not surprising. But, aside from the competitive advantage, what does Killingsworth’s research tell us about the inner rewards of running with a controlled mind?

It makes sense that the associaters would be happier as well as more successful.

I don’t have numbers to support this. But my own private study of one tells me that I’m always happier when I make the effort to cultivate a strong mental focus when I run.

Now then, does “focus” equate to running with an unpleasant, jaw-jutting, tooth-grinding, tense state of mind?

Not at all. In fact, it’s well known that too much mental strain destroys focus. Trying to corral our thoughts with an overly hard-nosed effort doesn’t work. Under the pressure of an overbearing will, our thoughts scatter, eluding our grasp and scurrying in all directions.

The scientists of the mind – I’m speaking of the yogis, Buddhists, and Christian contemplatives – have discovered that when we want to focus our attention, it’s important to harmonize the feelings of our hearts.

Next time you’re out for a run, try this simple experiment. Try forcing your mind to concentrate. You’ll quickly see that it’s no good. Now try dwelling pleasantly on this very moment – and then this moment, and then the next.

As you round each bend in the road or trail, relax into that moment. Enjoy this scenery. Enjoy running in this new state of being.

With calm detachment, watch your body run, almost as if you’re going along for the ride. You won’t have to work very hard to focus your attention, if you can achieve the right feelings.

Perhaps nothing forces us to focus more effectively than racing. (Click to enlarge.)
Perhaps nothing more effectively forces us to focus  than racing. (Click to enlarge.)

A spiritual teacher of my acquaintance says that concentration is best defined as intense interest. It’s not about whanging the rebellious brain with a mental 2×4. It’s the art of balancing effort and ease in an increasingly smooth, energetic flow.

Running with focus is enjoyable. In fact, it’s a bit like running a race.

Frank Shorter described elite racing as series of surges, as the runners press down on the gas, and then relax, take stock, and enjoy.

It’s similar with mental focus. It can help to employ mental “surges,” focusing intently and deliberately on what’s going on, then letting mind and emotions relax.

Going into a run, I’ll sometimes dedicate the entire run to “practicing focus.” As I noted earlier, I always feel wonderful after those runs, even if I don’t succeed in being a hundred-percent focused, or achieve one-pointed focus a hundred percent of the time.

The mind needs to be warmed up, just as we warm up the body before we start running fast.

A friend of mine is an accomplished musician and singer. She attends a yearly workshop given by the renowned men’s singing group, Chanticleer. (The link is to their YouTube videos; see also the Chanticleer website.)

Karen told me something that blew me away. She said the Chanticleer members spend one or two hours individually warming up their voices before they start to practice the pieces they’ll perform. During the warmup, they sing only in the lower register, and they sing very softly for a long time.

I think that’s wonderful. As an amateur singer, I find it takes 40 minutes to an hour of quiet humming and low-register singing to prepare my voice to sing loudly with ease.

The Chanticleer singers told Karen that warming up in the low register reduces the risk of damaging the vocal chords, which are brittle and fragile. It also gets the voice ready to sing high. “Take care of the low register, and you don’t have to worry about the high register.”

I’ve discovered that a long warmup pays impressive dividends for the quality of my runs. It pays off on two levels — body and mind.

Gradually refining my mental focus, and letting my body warm up at its own pace, yields consistent happy, productive running.

Tom Taylor, a long-time friend, managed a small health food store. When he started the job he hated to stock the shelves. He felt it was a boring, time-consuming menial task that kept him from more important work.

That is, until he decided to make a game of it. He decided he would put all his attention into restocking – lining up the rows of cans and bottles perfectly, making sure the labels faced forward, and cleaning up dust or stains from the products and shelves.

Stocking became an enjoyable part of his job that he looked forward to. Tom said that finding the joy of a focused mind made him more aware, not less.

“What I do now is not only stock shelves, but I’m aware of everything that’s going on in the store while I’m doing it. I try to be aware of the customers. If I hear somebody ask for something, I tune in and get involved, and if somebody comes in, I’m talking to them. So I’ve made stocking shelves more than what it is. I do the best I can with every little thing I try to do, even if it’s just lining up the cans perfectly, and so I enjoy it. It isn’t difficult to enjoy something if you’re putting your energy into it. If you’re always resisting, of course, it’s no fun at all. I think that’s the thing you start to realize, that everything can be fun if you’re really there with it, and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing.”

I know it sounds weird, but I’ve come out of some of my worst runs feeling wonderful, whenever I focused deeply on what was happening, even the bad stuff.

Focusing attention energizes the part of the brain where positive attitudes are localized, in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate gyrus. It’s one reason why yogis, Buddhists, and Christian contemplatives place so much emphasis on learning to concentrate. The PFC is a “feel-good” part of the brain. It’s well known that people who are capable of setting and achieving long-term goals, and who have a habitually positive attitude, have more energetically activated PFCs.

But there’s a phase in every run when we can easily lose our focus and happiness.

As I discuss in my book, every run begins with the body. The warmup is when the body gets ready to run fast.

As the body finds its groove, good feelings arise. The danger comes in the late stages of the feeling phase, as our feelings start to wane. Without strong feelings to hold our attention, our minds can easily start to drift.

It’s important to take deliberate steps to protect our happiness. I always find that if I let my focus weaken, I’m likely to lose the happy reward at the end of the run.

Meditate before running? Sure, why not? Singing in the car on the way to a long run helps tune mind and heart for focused running. (Photo by author; click to enlarge.)
Meditate before running? Sure, why not? Singing in the car on the way to a long run helps tune mind and heart for focused running. (Photo by author; click to enlarge.)

When our attention begins to scatter, we can bring it back deliberately, disciplining it like a child that wanders into a busy street.

The discipline needs to be persistent but gentle. I think of this part of the run as a rite of passage – a test of will, and of my resolve to keep my attention focused and earn a reward of happiness.

The last part of the run is the spiritual phase, where attention and positive feelings merge in a quiet, high-energy, very enjoyable flow.

A practice that can help us create happy runs is repeating a positive affirmation or phrase, or perhaps a line from a song.

It should be something that has personal meaning for us, and that evokes positive feelings. Alternatively, we can dwell on a pleasant memory – for example, a time when we expanded our heart to a friend and were rewarded with feelings of love and joy.

Another pleasant way to pass the time, and deepen our focus, is to send positive thoughts, prayers, and blessings to others.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Matt Killingsworth’s research is that letting our minds wander might not be the happiest way to run, even if it delivers occasional, random, unpredictable inspirations.

Not everyone will choose to be an associater – it is, after all, quite a bit of work. But there’s no doubt that it pays a worthwhile return on our investment of energy and time.

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