It was desired to record the thoughts and physiological responses of runners to determine preferred thought styles during endurance exercise, however, no validated procedure for recording thoughts during exercise existed. Therefore, in the first study three procedures for recording thoughts during running were evaluated on the basis of thought content obtained and the subjects' appraisal of the procedures. After familiarisation, six runners completed three treadmill runs (approximately 75% HRmax) in which their thoughts were recorded using one thought recording procedure each run. Procedures trialed were (a) think-aloud and post-exercise recall, (b) questions presented on slides during the run, video-taping and post-exercise recall, and, (c) think-aloud, video-taping of subject and post-exercise recall. In all runs subjects watched a running scenery video on a TV in front of the treadmill while running. Analysis of subjects' thought content indicated similar types of thoughts were recorded by each procedure. However, subjects indicated a preference for the think-aloud plus video-taping procedure in a post-experimental rating of procedures. Think-aloud and video taping was rated significantly better in accuracy of thoughts obtained, ease of putting thoughts into words, not forgetting because there were too many thoughts to recall, remembering thoughts, and overall.
In the second study, the think-aloud and video procedure was used to record 17 subjects' thoughts during three experimental treadmill runs - a 70% VO2max economy run, a 4 km time trial and a set-pace run to fatigue (approximately 12 min duration) - in an effort to determine the thought styles associated with superior efficiency, optimal pacing and effective pain control. Heart rate and performance data were recorded during the trials; plasma lactate was sampled at the finish. Written self-report measures were also collected from the subjects before and after the experimental trials and the think-aloud and video-taping thought recording procedure was employed during the runs. Before the experimental runs subjects completed familiarisation trials and a VO2max test. Subjects represented a range in VO2max (61.8 ± 10.0 ml.kg-1.min-1).
Using an inductive content analysis procedure, a specific thought categorisation system was developed from the thought recordings. Subjects' thoughts from the experimental trials were then coded as one of the 11 identified categories of thought. Statistical analyses were conducted to determine which types of thoughts were associated with superior performance and more favourable physiological responses during the three different format runs.
Clear styles of thought existed for the experimental runs. The economy run involved more dissociative thought than the other runs. Economical running was associated with relaxing or dissociative and meditative thought rather than attention to running technique, which was in fact associated with poorer economy. There were associations between thoughts during one stage and estimated %VO2max during latter stages, indicating a lag period before the physiological responses associated with a particular thought style become manifest during a run. Subjects could adjust the treadmill speed in the 4 km trial to complete the distance in the shortest possible time and consequently thought about their pacing more often during this run. No thought style emerged clearly to support effective pacing. Increased associative thought seemed inevitable in reaching maximal work capacity. The cognitive strategies of positive self-talk and goal setting were part of subjects' performance in the set-pace run where there was no other distance or time goal present.
The results suggest that the association/dissociation dichotomy is probably too simplistic to be of use in scientific studies of athletes' cognitions as there are distinct types of association and dissociation (e.g., meditative dissociation, distractive dissociation, active and passive association). Also, while it has been thought that the experience of the athlete largely determines cognitions during exercise, this study found that thought style is also specific to exercise intensity and the nature of the task (e.g., fixed or adjustable pace). Therefore, consideration of finer categories of thought along with the unique conditions under which thought content information is obtained may help reduce the incidence of apparently confusing findings in this area. It is suggested that in becoming elite, runners acquire a range of cognitive strategies which help in optimising different aspects of their training and competition performance.