Take Your Mind Off The Run: How Dissociation Can Improve Your Running Performance

Do you ever zone out during a run, then regain focus to suddenly find that you’ve actually come a lot further since you were last paying attention?

It might seem counterintuitive, but distancing your mind from the activity you’re doing can actually improve your performance at it.

In any form of sport or exercise, the body is nearly always capable of going further than the mind allows. Using dissociative thought practices can help distance your mind from the physical hardship and pain being experienced by the body during endurance running, thereby helping to improve performance. 

Furthermore, it can help prevent you from overregulating your bodily function and rhythm, letting your training and past experience take over whilst your conscious brain takes a back seat.

But what exactly is dissociation, and most importantly – how can it help you run far?

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

  • What is dissociation in the context exercise and running?
  • How can it improve your performance? (the science)
  • When is disassociation useful?
  • 10 dissociation techniques that you can utilise.

Let’s jump in!

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What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is the process of distancing yourself mentally from your bodily activity: for runners, this means ‘tuning out’ of your performance and running progress whilst on a run.

It can be intentionally used as a tool to help with endurance performance and reduce fatigue, but many runners practice it unknowingly by letting their thoughts wander during a run or perhaps through listening to music. 

There are two types of disassociation commonly classified: 

  1. Dissociative-external attention: e.g. focusing on the surrounding scenery, listening to music, chatting to a friend.
  2. Dissociative-internal attention: e.g. solving a mental puzzle, repeating a mantra, thinking about what you want for dinner…

Dissociation vs Association

Counter to dissociation is association.

This is the practice of specifically focusing the mind on your bodily rhythms and movements such as your running form as you run (known as association-internal) or focusing on specific external markers relative to your run such as race markers, GPS watch output, or a heart rate sensor (known as association-external).

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Proven Benefits of Dissociation Whilst Running

A recent study measured the impact of dissociation vs association on running economy (heart rate level and volume of oxygen consumed) and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE – i.e. how difficult the run feels). Participants were non-professional athletes running on treadmills at 70% of their maximum speed (an aerobic pace).

It was found that the dissociating participants consumed less oxygen, had lower blood lactate, and had a lower RPE than those who were associating.

These findings suggest that when running at a particular speed at a submaximal pace (i.e not pushing yourself to run really fast), your body will perform better physiologically and you will find the run easier mentally if you try dissociating.

Other studies have similarly found that associative thoughts result in greater perceived feelings of effort and fatigue when exercising. 

Why Does Dissociation Improve Performance?

Scientists believe it allows your mind to distance itself from the bodily functions during a run, meaning that your exertion and pain are interpreted less emotionally.

Additionally, your running economy is likely improved due to the fact that individuals are not attempting to control their running movements consciously, and therefore their motor controls are not interrupted in any way. This is in contrast to associative thought processes, which may disrupt the natural motor functions of the body.

However, in a paper that collated 20 years’ worth of research, the results found that athletes tended to run faster when associating, but dissociation is related to lower RPE and possibly greater endurance. This brings us to the next section…

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When To Dissociate, And When Not To

Despite the many proven benefits of dissociation tactics during low-intensity running, there are some situations where it might not be the ideal solution, depending on your level of experience and your desired outcome and goals. 

#1: Just starting out?

If you are just starting your running journey, focusing on your bodily rhythms and your step-by-step movements when running may help with the learning process.

This is because it can take a bit of time for the body to automate such functions, and a certain degree of autonomy in the running process is required in order for your mind to dissociate whilst your body carries on doing the work!

Related: Here Are 9 Signs Of Poor Running Form

#2: Want to Keep Running Enjoyable?

If you’re running simply to destress, mental health gains, or for the enjoyment of clearing your head and being out and about, dissociating might be for you.

One study demonstrated that even during a short 1.5 mile moderate intensity non-competitive run, individuals enjoyed themselves significantly more when dissociating.

Especially during slow, long training runs, where speed is not important, dissociation is likely to make a run easier and more enjoyable.

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Whether training for a half marathon, marathon, or ultramarathon, you can sometimes end up feeling bogged down and overwhelmed, so making runs more relaxing and enjoyable through dissociation could keep you motivated and engaged with your training routine, therefore more likely to achieve your goals.

#3: On Race Day?

Some claim that dissociation is a tool that should be used mostly during training and that more associative techniques should be utilized during competitive events to maximize speed. However, this depends on the distance you’re running.

Studies have indeed shown that when individuals exercise at a self-determined pace, they tend to run harder and push themselves further when associating and focusing on their bodily sensations as opposed to dissociating, running a 5k one minute faster on average. 

However, this becomes harder and harder on longer races, where pushing yourself to be as fast as possible becomes less important, and the importance of maintaining stamina and reducing fatigue becomes more important.

The longer the race, the more useful dissociative techniques are likely to be.

In the final stages of a run when the body is the most strained, focusing on bodily sensations means focusing on the pain, whereas distancing the mind from the pain through the use of dissociative techniques is likely to prove very useful. 

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A recent NYT article explored the opinions of various experts and professionals on the topic: 

Paula Radcliffe, who won the New York Marathon in 2008, cites the importance of dissociative techniques during competition as a way of focusing on the moment and not thinking about the race itself.

Her chosen technique is to continually count to 100 three times in her head, each count signifying another mile passed.

Dr. Bill Morgan, a professor on the study of human movement, has worked with hundreds of marathon runners and found that all of them had their own dissociation techniques. 

After hearing of a group of Tibetan Monks that supposedly ran 300 miles in 30 hours by focusing their attention on distant objects whilst running and repeating the word ‘down’ every time their foot hit the ground, Dr. Morgan decided to test these techniques in the lab. The results showed a significant increase in endurance when using these techniques.

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10 Dissociation Techniques That You Can Use When Running

As mentioned previously, lots of runners have their own individual techniques, so it might just be a matter of finding something that works for you individually, or just seeing where your mind takes you! Here are a few ideas to get you started:

External Dissociation Techniques

  1. Listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook. This doubles as a great way to keep entertained during long runs.
  2. Focus on the landscape. You could just observe the surrounding scenery as you pass it, or try picking a static point on the horizon, object, or scene in the distance to focus on. This can further distance yourself from the sensation of moving, and therefore the motion of running. 
  3. Chat to a friend. This could be done with a running partner or over the phone, and has the additional benefit of helping you maintain an easy, conversational pace, as is often recommended.
  4. Focus on another runner. This one’s most useful in a race or group run. Similar to looking at a point on the horizon, by focusing on something moving at a similar pace, you can distance yourself from the sensation of constant movement.
  5. People watching. One for those who are running in the city!
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Internal Dissociation Techniques

  1. Repeat a mantra. It could be a single repeated word every time one of your feet lands, or a longer phrase. 
  2. Repeat a short section of a song. No judgment on what song you choose…  if it helps, it helps!
  3. Mind games. Can you name every country? How many different colors can you see? Can you spot something beginning with each letter of the alphabet?
  4. Motivational self-talk. This is often in the context of a mantra – a short repeated motivational phrase such as “keep going”
  5. Get creative! What are you going to cook this week? What’s your perfect holiday? Imagine that you’re running somewhere completely different!

Experiment with or combine different techniques to find out what works best for you!

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Overall, it’s generally recommended to use dissociation as a tool to surpass feelings of discomfort and improve your endurance, occasionally ‘checking in’ with association to monitor how your body feels, your level of hydration, and to make sure you’re hitting your goals.

Photo of author
Hailing from Brighton, UK, Felix is a lover of running, cycling, and all things active. When he's not exploring a remote corner of the globe on a bike-packing trip, Felix enjoys meditating, making music, and running as far as his legs will let him!

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