“What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve” – Napoleon Hill
The first time I did a visualization practice I was 15 years old. My swim coach took the team to a large empty, quiet and dark room. He told us to all lay on the ground and close our eyes (this kind of sounds creepy now…but stay with me). He told us to visualize the ocean and walked us through a scene. He encouraged us to take deep breaths and to imagine ourselves there. Then, he told us to each focus on our most important race in the upcoming CIF Championship. He asked us to walk through the moments leading up to the race and then to envision ourselves completing it successfully. At the time, I giggled a bit, thinking this was all kind of funny. But, I did it. I visualized myself in the water, moving fluidly through and coming up for air at just the right times, kicking hard, sweeping my arms forward into the perfect breast stroke, and then grasping the wall and finishing victoriously.
A week later, I achieved my goal at the swim meet and came home with a shiny gold medal. I had forgotten about the visualization but looking back, I know that the confidence I gained in that session helped me win. I didn’t think about visualization or practice it at all until 13 years later in the weeks leading up to Ironman Coeur D’Alene. Due to all of the moving parts involved in successfully completing a race of this distance, I knew I needed to get my mind right. On long runs or bike rides, I’d walk myself through my race plan. I’d experience the cold lake, feel the pain in my quads as I climbed the hills and wind on my face as I bounded down them, see my family on the sidelines as I ran by them and finally, I’d envision myself crossing the finish line and Mike Reilly calling out my name. Race day was a bit tougher than I imagined (I’m not sure any visualization can prepare you for the pain of an ironman marathon), but it ended the same way as my visualization.
Visualization techniques are used by the vast majority of elite athletes and coaches. In a survey conducted on coaches at the US Olympics Training Center in Colorado Springs, 94% of coaches and 90% of athletes used imagery in their sport (source). 20% of the athletes practiced visualization every day and 40% practiced every three to five days. A study was performed by Australian psychologist Alan Richardson on a group of basketball players. The first group practiced free throws 20 minutes a day, the second group visualized making free throws for 20 minutes a day and the third group did not practice or visualize. The results were pretty incredible – the group who DID NOT practice, yet visualized making free throws, improved almost as much (23% over 20 days) over the course of the study as the group who actually did physically practice (24%) The group who did not visualize or practice, did not improve at all (source). The mind can control the body’s limits.
A significant portion of my training for the Phoenix Marathon has been mental. I’ve recognized that at times it can be an area of weakness for me and I am working on improving it. As part of that, I’ve practiced visualization. Until recently, my race visualization was mostly at the end of a yoga workout, during corpse pose. I took all the time I needed after the session to focus on the goal at hand. I’d walk through the day leading up to the race and then envision myself racing, coming across obstacles and conquering them, and then finally, crossing the finish line. The first time I visualized crossing the finish line I was smiling ear to ear. Your mind can make your body react!
Another way I have used visualization in my training is during tough workouts. At the end of the workout (tempo run, hill repeats, etc) I try to put myself in the race. I even imagine the finish line ahead. When I have approximately a mile to go I tell myself that I’ve hit mile 25 of the race and it’s time to push past it. As I near the end, I imagine a finish line ahead and focus on crossing it. I repeat mantras in my head. It sounds a little intense but it helps! When I’m in that moment in the race, my mind will remember those training runs, subconsciously or consciously, and keep me going. The mind is powerful and manipulative. The mind wants the body to rest and conserve energy, not push itself to its limits and it will do anything to get your body to do so. By training your mind to keep going even when it wants to rest, it will stay stronger during pivotal moments in a race.
I plan to sit quietly by myself for at least 10 minutes each night until race day and visualize the Phoenix Marathon. Last night I did this, starting from leaving work on Thursday and driving to Phoenix all the way through the tasty beer I plan to drink to celebrate. I walked through my race plan step by step and I allowed myself to focus on the pain I’ll feel toward the end and repeated in my mind the mantras I’ll use to get through it.
Using my own experience and an article from Competitor Group here are some tips for race visualization:
1) Be Specific and Detailed. Imagine everything you can about the race. Start as early as two days before and work your way up to the race. Feel the nerves, imagine what you’ll eat, think about what time you’ll wake up. During the race portion of the visualization break the race into smaller segments so you can focus on each part, such as holding back in the beginning from strong finish at the end.
2) Imagine Success. The whole point of this exercise is to boost your confidence. Don’t let negative thoughts come into your mind during your visualization. Imagine yourself finishing strong and achieving your goal. Don’t ever think about anything else.
3) Visualize Potential Road Blocks. Despite imagining yourself succeeding, you need to also think about what COULD go wrong and how you will deal with it. In the end, you will still come out victorious but it doesn’t help to imagine a porto-potty break, tripping and falling, getting stopped by traffic, extreme weather conditions or anything else that could freak you out. Imagine yourself conquering these things head on and if any of them should actually happen in the race, you’ll be mentally prepared to face them.
4) Remind Yourself of the Reasons You Will Succeed. During your visualization and during the race, call back to reasons why you will achieve your goal, whether it be a really hard workout that you nailed, your improved nutrition or your new coach. Thnk of every reason you will succeed and remind yourself of those reasons throughout the simulated and actual race.
5) Visualize Often. Doing one visualization may improve your success, but repeatedly sitting down and walking through everything will improve your chances. Several 10 minute sessions over the course of a week is better than one longer session just before the race. If possible, practice the visualization on race day itself before you start.
Do you use visualization in your training and racing? Do you have any other tips I missed?
Shannon @ Mon Amour
I remember my swim coach did something similar for us back in high school before nationals. I also remember thinking he was talking crazy back then. Now I’m studying sports psychology in college. I used visualization a lot last triathlon season and while there is no “evidence” I know it helped. I like to take a bigger chunk of time the day or two before the race and go through every little detail of the race in my mind. Sometimes I write it down so it sticks in my head better. I think about what I’ll do in regards to my competition, everything. I also really like using it during those really killer workouts. I think visualization is extremely underused and the people who do it have almost a secret weapon. As they say, racing is 10% physical and 90% mental. (I don’t know who they is haha)
I’ve heard the 90% mental thing too! I actually thought about using it in this post but also wasn’t sure who said it! Haha
This is a great article and something I was just thinking about for my kids during their sport seasons. Great blog post!