Distraction: Mental Skills For Racing

Understanding of the human mind in sport has improved significantly in the last two decades. We have moved beyond the inverted ‘U’ of the optimal state of arousal model. There are many mental tactics a runner can use to improve race performance. These can be enhanced through training, practice and understanding. This post will focus on using distraction. It is the main mental skill I used during my recent 50km at the Surf Coast Century.


The concept of distraction is simple. Focus on something other than the difficulty or pain of what you are experiencing. Used the right way it can be helpful. There are risks in employing this tactic.

The Risk

You don’t want to be distracted at key moments in a race. Race starts, technical sections or the closing stages are when you want to be focussed. Being distracted in these moments can prevent you making the most of the race.

Short and fast is another situation you wouldn’t use distraction. You want to be fired up and focussed.

Can you maintain race pace automatically? If not, being distracted might have you fall off the pace.

When To Use Distraction

The main benefit of distraction is it gives you space. It can reduce the mental load. Potentially saving the mind for the time you need to have intense focus.

  • When you have a lot of negative thoughts
  • When you have a long section to get through
  • When you have the ability to automatically run at the required pace
  • When you want to save some mental energy for later

How To Use Distraction

There are three distinct forms of distraction to use:

  1. Use numbers
  2. Get off topic
  3. What’s around you?

1. Use Numbers

If the negative thoughts are hitting hard, use this. Turn the focus onto numbers. It is an interrupting technique that stops the subjective part of the brain for a moment. It takes away from emotion. Using numbers gives you the chance to reset the brain so you have a better chance to direct it where you want it go. You don’t have to be good at maths. You just have to do something with numbers. Here’s some ideas:

  • Count your breaths per minute
  • Count your steps
  • Do some simple sums
  • Convert your pace to miles if you think in metric

It is that simple. Your calculations don’t even have to be correct for it to work.


2. Get Off Topic

It helps having some company, but you can do this by yourself as well. If lucky to be running with someone just have a conversation. Talk about anything that isn’t the race. The conversation doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to be distracting.


If by yourself at the time, ask yourself a question. Again, not about the race:

  • Why is the sky blue?
  • What song lyrics do I always mix up?
  • What makes me smile?


Try listening to music, if the race rules allow. Getting absorbed in the tunes coming through your earphones can be a good way to pass the time a little faster.

3. What’s Around You?

This is a more subtle shift in focus. Move it away from how your legs feel or how much further you have to run. Look at what’s around you with curiosity. Look at the trees near you. Trace the line of their leaves. Look at the colour of the dirt. Is it dark? Light? What colour is it? Savour any views you are treated to along the course. It might remind you why you keep heading out for runs.


Distraction: Mental Skills For Racing