We all have ploys to make our cardio sessions fly by faster or seem easier. But it turns out those efforts could backfire.
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We all have ploys to make our cardio sessions fly by faster or seem easier. Music, mantras, mental shopping lists, even enjoying the scenery—you name it, we work hard to get through by distracting ourselves. Turns out, those efforts may make our workouts more tedious and harm our performance.

A new study in the journal Motivation and Emotion found that people who “narrowly focused” on the finish line—rather than taking in their surroundings—had better event times, felt that exercise was easier, and thought that the distance to the finish line was shorter. But when you consider that study participants had to do just 20 feet of high knees while wearing ankle weights—and that the finish “line” was an orange traffic cone—it’s easy to wonder what relevance this has to, say, long runs.

Plenty, it turns out. Though a 20-foot walk is a far cry from a 26.2-mile marathon, intently focusing on your goal, rather than pretending you’re somewhere else, can boost performance, says New York City running and triathlon coach Jonathan Cane, founder City Coach Multisport. And, if your finish line is miles in the distance, focus on smaller goals long the way. “That’s why there are mile markers in a marathon,” he points out. “It’s a lot easier if there are mini-tasks that are more attainable.”

Staying focused, though, is only part of a winning strategy, Cane adds. You have to change your attitude about fitness. “We’re lucky that we get to work out,” he says. “Stop treating it like it’s punishment.”

“There’s something inherently wrong with the attitude that it’s work.” So rather than attempting to tune out the drudgery, he advises, “engage in what you're doing; think about it.” You can even use this trick on the treadmill, he says: Focus on that LED light traveling around the lap indicator. No music, no TV—just a bit of mindful engagement.

Concentrating on your progress, rather than drowning out the experience by listening to “Happy” for the millionth time, will yield a better workout—and a truly happier experience overall. Now that’s worth dwelling on.