Coping with acute exertional sensations during physical effort expenditure requires optimal use of attentional resources. Association and dissociation are two broad attentional strategies for coping with exertional stimuli during effort expenditure. Association represents the shift of the attentional focus inward (to somatic sensations), and dissociation represents the shift of the attentional focus outward (away from somatic sensations). Association and dissociation, therefore, correspond to internal and external foci, respectively.
Comparative research findings indicate that both association and dissociation can be effective and ineffective. Specifically, depending on several characteristics inherent in task and effort conditions either strategy was shown to be more or less potent. There is a general consensus that associative strategies may help performance in competitive events such as long-distance running, while dissociative strategies may help adherence in noncompetitive physical activity settings such as a routine treadmill walk.
Associative Versus Dissociative Strategies
Associative strategies increase awareness of physiological cues, such as breathing, heart pounding, and muscle pain, leading to increased negative affective responses during physical activity. Nevertheless, association also enables better effort monitoring and self-regulation, thereby allowing increased time on task as well as greater performance efficiency, performance outcome, and injury prevention. Dissociative strategies, on the other hand, are closely linked to a number of task-related variables, including task-related pleasure, confidence, feelings of ease, and motivation. Moreover, dissociating helps lower perception of fatigue and exertion, thereby allowing reduced sense of task difficulty.
In sum, because associative strategies correspond to an inward focus of attention, their use increases awareness of somatic cues during effort expenditure. In contrast, the use of dissociative strategies decreases awareness of somatic cues, helps curb the physiological stress posed by the effort, and overall results in a greater potential for enhancing the physical activity experience.
It is evident that, while an associative attentional focus is more beneficial for performance enhancement during competitive events, a dissociative attentional focus is of greater value for relatively untrained individuals or during noncompetitive events. Distraction from aversive sensations via the use of dissociative strategies is, however, limited and closely depends on the effort intensity (workload).
Attention Inflexibility and Attention Threshold
As a limited capacity, attention is compromised in its flexibility to cope with physiological sensations as the effort expenditure increases. Specifically, at the onset of effort expenditure or at submaximal workloads, attentional focus is flexible: It can be switched back and forth effortlessly between associative and dissociative foci. Increase in physiological stress, however, leads the system to be challenged and compromised in its attentional flexibility. Specifically, as the workload gets harder or time on task increases, attention shifts inwards, preventing the system from distracting. The point at which attention loses its flexibility to shift between dissociation and association is termed the dissociative/associative (D/A) attention threshold. The concept entails that, once a subjective perceptual threshold relative to perceived physiological cues is exceeded, attention shifts from a dissociative focus to an associative one. Thus, as this perceptual threshold is attained, dissociative strategies are compromised in their capacity to distract from aversive cues of fatigue. The latter results in a final tuning into an associative focus, hence a growing concentration on the acute stress of exertion. The attention threshold occurs in parallel to the aerobic–anaerobic transition. Thus, when the physical effort expenditure is maintained below the attention threshold, effort can be sustained significantly longer than when the effort expenditure is at or above the aerobic–anaerobic transition levels. Specifically, a shift from dissociative to associative focus of attention takes place as the workload intensity begins exceeding approximately 50% of the individual’s maximal capacity. In fact, when individuals report equal employment of associative and dissociative strategies, associative strategies gradually take over rendering the cessation of the effort imminent. The issue of attention inflexibility and interventions to address it are the subject of a growing number of studies.
Methods for Extending the D/A Threshold
Distractive capabilities of dissociative strategies are compromised once the D/A attention threshold is exceeded, that is, as marked by the final tune into the associative attention focus. Successful attempts to delay the occurrence of the D/A threshold may aid in extending effort expenditure. To that aim, exposure to polysensory feedback including the use of auditory stimuli such as music, use of olfactory stimuli such as differential odorants, and use of mental imagery and virtual reality, have been shown to help postpone the final tune into the associative focus—but at low to moderate workload intensities only. Because the optimal use of attentional resources is central to sport and exercise performance and adherence, testing the effectiveness of further modalities designed to address the issue of attentional inflexibility remains important.
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