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Is thinking slowing you down?

October 25, 2012

I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s very interesting. You should probably read it too. 

It’s not about running, but there’s one bit that made me think about running and the thoughts the different distraction techniques that runners use to keep on going through a race.

Accelerating beyond my strolling speed completely changes the experience of walking, because the transition to a faster walk brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently. As I speed up, my attention is drawn with increasing frequency to the experience of walking and to the deliberate maintenance of the faster pace. My ability to bring a train of thought to a conclusion is impaired accordingly, At the highest speed I can sustain on the hills, about 14 minutes for a mile, I do not even try to think of anything else. In addition to the physical effort of moving my body rapidly along the path, a mental effort of self-control is needed to resist the urge to slow down. Self-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.

This particular extract is interesting because runners – myself included – sometimes attempt mental arithmetic as a distraction technique. For example, calculating the margin of safety built up when running slightly faster than target pace, or estimating a finish time based on time elapsed at a recent mile marker. Since we’re often running faster than is comfortable, there’s a mental effort involved in pushing onwards, which needs to be shared with the mental effort of the calculations.

Elsewhere in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we’re told about an experiment into the effect of glucose on the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. A test group consisted of two groups of people, all performing a range of mental arithmetic tasks. One group was given lemonade sweetened with sugar, and the other was given lemonade made with an artificial sweetener. The group given sugar performed better. Distance runners are likely to recognise the need to refuel during an energy-sapping task.

All of which makes me wonder: If we put too much effort into distracting ourselves from the pain of racing at the edges of our ability, are we effectively slowing ourselves down? Or actually making running at that speed more energy consuming? Is a bargaining technique (‘Just see if we can run to XXX, then YYY’, where the mental effort is focused on sustaining the physical effort for just that much longer) a more efficient mental racing strategy than distraction (e.g. solving simple problems, where the mental effort is to ignore the physical effort)?

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