Workouts requiring the most concentration result in PBs.
RUNNING FAST requires focus, and honing that focus takes “deliberate practice.” The term was coined by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, and refers to practice that incorporates setting goals, developing skills, and correcting mistakes. The effort is as much mental as it is physical. Putting in 10,000 hours of this type of intense process is what produces great concert pianists, surgeons—and athletes.
Speedwork is an obvious form of deliberate practice: You must set pace goals for repeats, monitor your splits, and make adjustments to speed. Deliberate training also includes form and technique drills, strength workouts in the gym, and working with a coach. One study found that the amount of time middle-distance runners spent on these three activities was a good predictor of how fast they raced. You likely do some of these sessions, but going through the motions isn’t enough if you’re not fully engaging your brain. The goal isn’t just to increase fitness, but to help you master the skill of running.
Mastering any skill takes intense concentration, which limits how long you can do it. One to three sessions of deliberate practice a week is plenty. They won’t be easy, but researchers found that workouts requiring the most concentration and highest effort level are the ones runners rate most satisfying—especially when the result is a PB.
1. Gear Shifter
A sense of pace is the most important cognitive skill for runners, as it enables you to race on the threshold of your limits. Hone it by running interval workouts that require frequent gear changes.
Get Focused: Do an inverted pyramid of 1200, 800, 400, 800, 1200 meters with a 2:00 rest between each. Run the 1200s at 10-K pace, the 800s at 5-K pace, and the 400 close to full-out. On each lap, aim to nail your goal pace within two seconds.
2. Form Check
Technique drills break your running form into its component parts and develop the specific strength, balance, and movement patterns that translate into smoother running. Even simple moves require focus to avoid ingraining bad habits.
Get Focused: Once a month, have a friend videotape your drills and check for cues that you’re on form. High Knees: a slight forward lean, back straight, drive thigh up, parallel to ground; Butt Kicks: hips stay squared, knee comes slightly forward as heel swings back; Walking Lunges: lead foot lands flat, both legs form 90-degree angles at bottom of lunge.
3. Dress Rehearsal
Researchers have found that fast runners spend more time “associating” (focusing on their body, pace, and competitors) than “dissociating” (letting their mind wander) compared to slower runners. Speedwork develops this skill in bursts, but time trials prepare you to sustain your attention.
Get Focused: Three weeks before your goal event, run 50 to 75 percent of the race distance at your target pace or slightly slower. Curtail any daydreaming by doing a mental check-in every kilometre—assess your pace, how your legs and lungs feel, and whether you’re maintaining good form.