Running Faster by Focusing on the Finish Line

People who gaze at an object in the distance go faster and feel less exertion than those who let their attention wander, a study suggests.

People who are starting a rigorous new exercise regimen might be told (and tell themselves) to "keep their eyes on the prize"—the prize being the personal best record, a completed marathon, or some other milestone. Anything to coax yourself away from the Netflix and out onto the freezing streets for a run.

But new research suggests that taking the "eyes on the prize" mantra literally can help with performance. A study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion found that focusing on a stopping point in the distance, like a building or tree, can cause distances to appear shorter. This, in turn, encourages exercisers to move more quickly and reduces the feeling of exertion.

“These findings indicate that narrowly focusing visual attention on a specific target, like a building a few blocks ahead, rather than looking around your surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster, and also makes exercising seem easier," said New York University psychology professor Emily Balcetis in a release.

This concept is known as "attention narrowing." In their experiments, the researchers took participants to a park in New York in the summertime and positioned them in front of, first, a cooler filled with cold drinks and, in a second experiment, in front of a traffic cone. One set of subjects was told to focus solely on the cooler or cone in the distance. The others were told to look around as they naturally would. "Keeping their eyes on the prize," it turns out, made a big difference:

Those in the narrowed attention group perceived the cones to be 28 percent closer than did those in the natural condition group. In addition, those in the narrowed attention group walked 23 percent faster than did those in the natural attention group. Finally, those in the narrowed attention group reported that the walk required less physical exertion than did those in the natural condition group—a finding that may serve as an incentive to exercise.

The researchers write that they aren't sure why focusing on the object made the task seem easier and encouraged the participants to walk faster. It could be that the shorter-seeming distance made the subjects feel more capable of completing the task.

Or, it might have kicked their bodies into high-gear. "When people see goals as within reach, it may mobilize action, producing bursts of energy that result in quicker walking times and an experience of ease," they wrote in the study.

This might explain, they add, why in a previous study people who were randomly assigned to run on a treadmill were slower and found the workout harder than those told to run outside.

While this is a small study, the idea that people work harder when they feel closer to reaching a goal has borne out previously. Everyone seems to have a different trick (be it Taylor Swift on loop or the prospect of Ben & Jerry's after dinner) for getting through their winter workouts. For those who find their motivation flagging, keeping an endpoint in sight seems like a reasonable strategy to try.