Even routine runners have off days where legs feel like lead or motivation is just lacking. There's a seriously easy way to help make those workouts seem shorter and less painstaking: By creating visual goals along your route.
A new study from New York University found that keeping your eye on the finish line or markers along the route — whether that's a building several blocks ahead of you on a run or a mountain in the distance on a hike — can make the ground you have to cover appear shorter. Zeroing in on a particular marker can also help you to get there faster and make your workout seem less taxing.
Researchers had 73 participants walk 20 feet while wearing heavy ankle weights to make the task more arduous. They told half of the group to focus solely on a traffic cone at the finish line and the other half to glance at the cone but also check out their surroundings while they walked. The cone-focused participants perceived the marker to be 28 percent closer than the other group did. Plus, they reached the finish line 23 percent faster and didn't think the walk was as physically demanding as the unfocused group.
"When the walkers focused their gaze on the goal, they were less likely to see other visual markers that might have suggested the finish line was far away," says Emily Balcetis, coauthor of the study and a psychology professor at NYU. "Seeing the distance as shorter might have led them to expect the exercise to be easier — and in fact it was."
Although her team studied walking specifically, Balcetis says this trick will likely work for running, biking, or any type of exercise where it's possible to focus your attention on a target ahead. (It would be pretty tricky to do this while swimming laps, she points out.) "This intervention might even be an effective strategy for people who struggle with running or are trying to build up to more strenuous physical activities," Balcetis adds.
But your target doesn't necessarily need to be the actual finish line. "I would suggest designing smaller, sub-goals," Balcetis says. "Pick a landmark a few blocks ahead, like a stop sign or a tree. When you hit your target, repeat. Pick the next landmark in view." Doing this, says Balcetis, will make a challenging experience more manageable by taking a big task and breaking it down into smaller, visible goals.