A study has shown that when an athlete purposefully focuses on their running form or their breathing it makes them less efficient. 

The research by Linda Schücker and Lucy Parrington at the University of Munster, Germany, looked at 12 different recreational runners. The aim of the study was to determine whether external or internal factors affected our running economy.

The findings could be interesting for anyone who tries to focus on form or breathing during their running.


After a short warm-up, runners undertook three six minute efforts at 60% 1km best. It was a moderate effort level and then a three minute rest between efforts. The researchers intervened at 30 second intervals to affect the focus. Commands were given depending on whether the focus was to be internal or external. These included “pay attention to breathing in and out” and “pay attention to the push-off and the forward movement of your legs”.

Motion sensors monitored the runners’ movements. At two and four minutes physiological markers were noted in each interval.

The findings

Previous work established that an external focus, a video of a running track around a lake, was the same as a control condition so it was not included. The difference was clear between external (video) focus and internal (form and breathing). Those focusing on the video were more efficient.

When runners focused on both their form and their breathing they became less efficient runners. Those focusing on their breathing took on more oxygen, but at the cost of running economy.

Runners focusing on their form generally increased vertical oscillation, the distance off the ground they were between each footfall, and this led to an increase in running economy costs.

So we’re better off focusing on our surroundings or something ahead than on ourselves.

What should we focus on?

What does this mean to the average runner? Or an elite runner for that matter. Well, one aspect that might be interesting to investigate is whether this changes due to our levels of fatigue. Is a runner at the end of a marathon going to benefit more from focusing on their form or breathing than someone running shorter distances?

It is certainly food for thought. When we are running fresh we most likely will run in the optimal way for our body. When our conscious mind tries to intervene at this stage, it is less efficient than our subconscious ability to just run. Will tiredness and fatigue affect the results?

A previous study done by Schemer looked at athletes undertaking three by 10 minute efforts at 85% effort to see if the attentional focus also had an effect at higher intensities. They found that it did. At higher intensities, it is still better to have an external focus, although this study just looked at breathing as the internal focus, not form.

We already know that smiling will help performance. Do athletes now need to resist the urge to think about their breathing and form, as we have always been told in the past? Focus ahead, look around, but whatever you do, don’t forget to run fast.

Are you a fan of Fast Running? Then please support us. For as little as the price of a monthly magazine you can support Fast Running – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.