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Attentional focus strategies of triathletes during the Ironman World Championships.

An Ironnian triathlon is composed of a 3.8k swim, a 180k bike ride and a 42.2k marathon run, all in one event without any rest in between. The world's best professional athletes complete the distance in less than 8 hours whereas the slowest age group athletes need up to 17 hours to cross the finish line. Finishing such an ultra endurance event is both a physical and a mental challenge. Being involved in physical activity for several hours gives the athlete a lot of time to focus and think. What is the content of these thoughts and where do athletes focus their attention on during such extreme physical activities? This study looks at focus of attention during an Ironman triathlon event and specifically addresses the question whether the use of different attentional strategies in the three disciplines of an Ironman triathlon is associated with overall performance.

The concept of attentional focus in endurance activities had been frequently studied for more than three decades. Morgan and Pollock (1977) were the first to differentiate between an internal and an external focus of attention. (1) An internal focus refers to a concentration on bodily symptoms and other factors associated with the endurance activity. An external focus, in contrast, implies a distraction from physical effort associated with the endurance task. Other researchers have proposed a classification into four categories (Stevinson & Biddle, 1999), however the use of two categories has been enforced (e.g. Connolly & Janelle, 2003). Looking at the definitions of internal and external focus, it is obvious that the concept is rather broad, especially when comparing attentional focus in endurance sports to attentional focus definitions in motor control. In motor control an internal focus refers to a monitoring of movement execution (e.g. Beilock, Carr, MacMahon, & Starkes, 2002; Wulf, 2007) which is a specific internal aspect. However, in endurance sports, an internal focus encompasses all factors pertaining to the activity, such as movement execution and physiological stimuli like heart rate, muscle tension and feelings of fatigue and pain. In the framework of this study the view of this broad concept is adopted and all aspects of internal and external attentional focus strategies are analysed.

One line of research looks at manipulations of attentional focus and its influence on performance outcomes. Early studies found an advantage for external focus instructions for running duration (Morgan, Horstman, Cymerman, & Stokes, 1983), and a simple leg extension task (Gill & Strom, 1985). Other studies looking at swimming performance (Couture, Jerome, & Tihanyi, 1999), rowing (Connolly & Janelle, 2003), or running (LaCaille, Masters, & Heath, 2004) found performance advantages for an internal focus. A recent study conducted by Schiicker, Hagemann, Strauss and Volker (2009) shows advantages of external focus instructions in terms of running economy. As previously mentioned, definitions of internal and external focus comprise a varied range of internal and external stimuli which makes it hard to compare focus manipulations across different studies. Furthermore the use of different dependent measures (duration, speed or economy for example) does not allow an integrative interpretation of the attentional focus effect in endurance sports.

Another body of research addresses the question which athletes (differentiated for performance level) are using which focus (internal or external) and under which circumstances (intensity of physical activity and competition or training). Morgan and Pollock's (1977) landmark study revealed that world class marathon runners used predominantly internal strategies such as a focus on breathing, feeling of muscles and pacing during the race. Non-elite marathon runners on the other hand, reported more external attentional strategies. Findings of another study showed that elite runners used adaptive and flexible strategies in the way that they monitor bodily sensation to adjust their pace but also employ external strategies, for example to distract from pain (Silva & Appelbaum, 1989). The use of differential patterns of attentional focus of endurance athletes (triathletes, swimmers and runners) of differing skill level was examined by Antonini-Philippe, Reynes and Bruant (2003). They did not find differences in attentional focus use in relation to skill level and all athletes used predominantly internal strategies in races. Brewer, Van Raalte and Linder (1996) had found differences in attentional focus use dependent on skill level (collegiate runners compared to psychology students). The relation between attentional focus use and exercise intensity has been the content of many studies. In their overview Masters and Ogles (1998) conclude that in general faster running speed is associated with an internal focus and slower running speed with an external focus. The most prominent theoretical model in this area was proposed by Tenenbaum (2001): At low intensity levels attention can shift voluntarily between internal and external cues, however at high intensity levels, attentional focus becomes increasingly internal. These assumptions were tested and supported with data from a handgrip

and a cycling task (Flutchinson & Tenenbaum, 2007).

The Present Study

This investigation is built around the question of when which kind of attentional focus strategy is used and whether this is related to overall performance. Previous studies have shown that attentional focus strategies during races can be related to performance (Morgan & Pollock, 1977). However, other studies showed that athletes from all levels used predominantly internal strategies in races (Antonini-Philippe et al., 2003) which is consistent with Tenenbaum's (2001) model of attentional focus and task intensity. Attentional focus strategies have not yet been assessed for an ultra endurance event, lasting several hours. Baker, Cote and Deakin (2005) assessed more general cognitive characteristics of Ironman triathletes and found differences in cognitive strategies depending on skill level.

To look into the specific demands of an Ironman triathlon we analyzed attentional focus separately for swimming, cycling and running. Due to the specific demands of the disciplines and the long lasting duration of the Ironman we expected differences between the three disciplines with regard to attentional focus use. Furthermore, we expected to find a relationship between attention allocation during the three disciplines and performance.



Ninety-one triathletes competing in the Ironman World Championships 2009 in Hawaii participated in this study. Gender distribution in the sample (n = 72 male and n = 19 female) was comparable to gender distribution of all athletes (n = 1650) competing in the event (72.7% male and 27.3% female). Mean age was 42 years (SD = 10). Participants trained an average of 17.63h (SD = 4.64) per week to prepare for the Ironman. All participants filled out the questionnaire voluntarily.


A questionnaire that had to be answered after the race was designed to assess attentional focus during the Ironman World Championships. The first part assessed demographic data and the main part of the questiomiaire was designed to assess attention and thoughts during the race, subdivided into the three triathlon disciplines swimming, cycling and running. Items were generated using the Attentional Focus Questionnaire (Brewer et al., 1996) and the Triathlon Attentional Focus Inventory (Werner, 2003) as a guideline. For ten different items participants had to "indicate the percent of time that you were thinking about the following items or directing attention to the following items." The items were split into five external items not related to bodily sensations (other competitors, letting your mind wonder, tactics, next discipline, environment) and five internal items related to movement execution and how the body responds to the exercise (correct technique, pain and fatigue, specific body sensations such as breathing and heart rate, personal feelings and emotions, pace). For each of the three disciplines the percent of time that the athlete was thinking about the specific item had to be indicated. Multiple answers were possible and values did not have to add to 100% to make the answering of the questionnaire easier for participants. There was also an open question where participants could indicate an aspect not covered by the questionnaire.


Data collection took place during the race week of the Ironnian World Championships in Hawaii in 2009. The questionnaire was distributed before the race and participants had to answer the questionnaire on the day after the race at the latest. Completing the questionnaire was voluntary and the return rate was 40.1%.

Data Analysis

Before computing values for the internal and external focus subscale, all total scores were set to 100% and values for the single items were adjusted. If for example the total score only added up to 80% all items were multiplied by 1.25. This allowed a better interpretation of the data with regard to differences between internal and external focus. An internal focus of 40% for example means that the remaining 60% were devoted to external aspects.

Statistical Analysis

All data analyses were computed with PASW 18. Correlations and a repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) were computed and sphericity assumption violations were corrected by Greenhouse-Geisser adjustments. Significance level was set at p < .05. For effect sizes [[eta].sup.2.sub.p] and d were calculated.


The repeated measures ANOVA with the single factor discipline was computed to look at differences in attentional focus in the swimming, cycling and running part of the race. Results revealed a significant main effect for discipline, F (2, 180) = 5.04, p = .007, [[eta].sup.2.sub.p] = .05. The highest amount of externally focused attention was found for cycling (M= 51.34%, SD = 14.51), followed by swimming (M= 49.07%, SD = 15.86) and running (M = 45.97%, SD = 13.56). Only for running the difference between internal (54.03%) and external (45.97%) focus was significant, t (90) = 2.83,p = .006, d= .3, see Figure 1.

To look at a relation of attentional focus use and performance we calculated a correlational analysis of attentional focus (amount of externally focused attention) in the three disciplines and overall finish time. A positive correlation would mean that more time spent focusing externally was related to longer finish times. As age is correlated to finish time (older athletes need longer to finish) we calculated semipartial correlation coefficients of finish time (controlled by age) and percentage of external attentional focus use in the swim, bike and run parts. The semipartial correlation coefficients are displayed in table 1.

We further looked at single questionnaire items to determine whether the amount of attention focus on some specific aspects was associated to overall finish time.


In this study we assessed attentional focus strategies of Ironman triathletes. We looked at the amount of internally versus externally focused attention in the three disciplines, the 3.8k swim, the 180k bike and the 42.2k run. Results revealed that attentional focus is generally not entirely internal or external during any of the disciplines. Especially for the swim and the bike leg internally and externally focused attention are comparably distributed. It seems that Ironman triathletes are using flexible attentional strategies and concentrate on internal aspects like body sensations, technique or pace as much as they concentrate on external aspects like their competitors, scenery or just letting their minds wander.

The results of this study do not support findings that races are associated with a predominantly internal focus of attention (e.g. Antonini-Philippe et al., 2003; Bachman, Brewer, & Petitpas, 1997; Masters & Ogles, 1998). However, Silva and Appelbaum (1989) had found that elite runners used adaptive and flexible attentional strategies in races and their focus was not predominantly internal. In this context it is important to differentiate between different kinds of endurance competitions, especially when comparing the results of other studies to this study on attentional strategies in an ultra endurance event. The duration of an Ironman competition exceeds the duration of most other endurance events lasting at least eight and at the longest 17 hours. This means that athletes perform at that percentage of their maximum performance that they can keep up for several hours and the fatigue accumulates as the race evolves. The fact that during the last part of the race, the marathon run, attentional focus turns more internal (although not completely and 45% are still devoted to external aspects) might be seen as support for the intensity and attentional focus relationship which predicts that more intense exercise leads to an increase of internally focused attention (Tenenbaum, 2001).

We did not find a relationship of focus of attention and finish time. This means that distribution of external versus internal focus of attention in each of the three disciplines was not linked to overall performance. In other words, athletes finishing faster did not use different strategies in terms of how much they focused internally or externally than slower athletes. A limitation of this study is that only overall finish time was assessed (as a general indicator of performance level) but not the split times for the three disciplines. Maybe attentional focus in a single discipline can be linked to performance in that respective discipline but not to overall performance.

The analysis of single items and their correlation to finish time revealed some interesting aspects. Athletes finishing slower spent more time letting their mind wander during the bike and less time thinking about tactics on the bike than athletes finishing faster. Furthermore more time spent thinking about the finish line during the run was associated with slower finishing times. As these are correlational analysis there is no causal relationship between concentrating on these aspects and finish time. It certainly does not mean that letting your mind less wander on the bike, think more about tactics and less about the finish line will lead to a faster finishing time. However, these relationships lend support to the notion that athletes of different performance levels do use different attentional strategies but these are rather specific and do not reflect a general attentional focus in terms of the amount of internal or external attentional focus.

One point which needs to be discussed when interpreting the results of this study are the psychometric properties of the questionnaire. We did not report any values of the internal consistency of the two subscales internal and external attention in the three disciplines. Based on the construction and the answering format of the questionnaire we did not expect high internal correlations between the single items of a subscale. It is well possible that an athlete only indicated one or two things that he/she spent time thinking about during the race while not thinking about the other items at all (therefore two internal items might each get 50% and the others 0% for one athlete and for another athlete two different items might each get 50% and the others 0%). Furthermore the concepts of internal and external attention are rather broad and each of these concepts comprise a range of different aspects, not necessary related to each other (thinking a lot about the internal aspect of movement execution does not need to be related to thinking a lot about another internal focus aspect, as for example feelings of pain). Added to this, not all aspects considered internal or external, respectively, were included in the questionnaire in order to keep it short (an open category allowed athletes to indicate other aspects which were later on classified as either internal of external). The most important thing when constructing the questionnaire was to choose items that, based on theoretical assumptions, can clearly be identified as belonging to the internal or external category. For these reasons we did not theoretically expect internally consistent subscales and therefore did not calculate and report them.

A further limitation in the design of the study is the fixed sequence of the three disciplines in the order swim, bike and run. Therefore a possible confound of discipline and order effect needs to be considered. The difference between the amount of internal and external focusing found for the running segment might not be due to the discipline itself but due to the fact that running is the last event in an ironman triathlon and athletes were more fatigued which lead to a higher internal focus. If for example the bike was the last segment it is possible that the internal focus was greater in this discipline. As counterbalancing the disciplines was not possible in this study design it remains open if it is the duration of the exercise that leads to more internal focus in the running segment or if the running itself leads to more internal focusing. Future research could explore this question by looking at a several hours cycling swimming or running event (instead of a triathlon) and check attentional focus distribution over time.

When talking about the results and their implications it is important to keep in mind that this was a retrospective assessment of attentional focus during the race using a questionnaire. Indicating the percentage of time that was devoted to different aspects some time after finishing the race might not reflect the actual attentional focus during the race. In this study attentional focus was assessed as dependent variable. This study design is not able to answer the question whether it is possible to manipulate attentional focus and whether a specific focus is beneficial for performance. Even though we did not find a relation of attentional focus and performance it is well possible that a successful manipulation of attentional focus and a direction of attention to specific cues are beneficial to performance. Experimental studies with a high external validity are needed to explore the attentional focus and performance relationship and to derive conclusions about the underlying causes and their applied meaning for athletes.


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Linda Shucker

University of Munster

Oliver Heil

University of Kassel

Ralf Brand

University of Potsdam

Norbert Hagemann

University of Kassel

Address Correspondence to: Linda Schucker University of Munster Institute of Sports Science Department of Sport Psychology Horstmarer Landweg 62b 48149 Munster-Germany email:


(1.) In fact Morgan and Pollock used the terms associative and dissociative attentional style to refer to an internal and external focus of attention. Some researchers still use the expressions of association and dissociation (e.g. Tenenbaum, 2001). In this study we consistently use the terms internal and external focus of attention.

Table 1
Semipartial correlation coefficients of overall finish
time (controlled for age) and use of externally focused
attention in the three disciplines.

                       Semipartial correlation with finish time

External focus swim                          .21
External focus bike                         -.06
External focus run                          -.09
Bike let mind wander                         .22 *
Bike tactics                                -.23 *
Run finish line                             .34 **

Note. * significant correlation p < .05,
** significant correlation p < .01.
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Author:Shucker, Linda; Heil, Oliver; Brand, Ralf; Hagemann, Norbert
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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