Did you know that 99 % Olympic athletes practice visualization (also referred to as mental imagery) for an average of 12 minutes a day four days a week (Orlick) ? You probably think this applies to the skill or technique events (shot put, high jump, etc.) in track. Not so! Distance runners also use visualization. It can promote relaxation, attentional focus as well as confident and resilient mindsets.
Visualization is a completely natural process. We do it all the time but don’t realize it. Think of it like vivid day dreaming. So vivid, you think you are in that moment.
More good news about imagery is that it is trainable. It is a skill that can be honed. It does take practice. You can use imagery just at home laying on a couch relaxing; but actually doing the activity itself… while doing a workout… according to the research may be the more effective approach. It reinforces the reality of all the senses and integrates it into the sport instead of being an additional activity or practice.
There are volumes of research conducted on visualization and its affect on performance. In Sweden and Russia there were several cool and replicated studies with visualization on basketball free throwing. They did controlled studies which divided up groups into physical practice and imagery practice In the following proportions: 100%/0%, 75%/25%, 50%/50% and finally 25%/75% respectively. The 25% physical and 75% imagery ended up performing best.
As an aside, imagery doesn’t work well for a novice athlete in a skill sport since they have not learned and mastered the physical skills yet. Think of it this way, if you don’t know the physical movements well then how do you replicate them in your mind to reinforce the “right” way to do them.
But, imagery goes way beyond learning a physical skill. It is a key to better performances and overcoming mental melt-downs in any competition. Once an athlete is conditioned physically, the difference in performance comes down to many mental or psychological dimensions.
Mental imagery is more than some pictures in your head. Properly done it incorporates all your senses. Researchers do not know all the exact mechanisms of how or why it works. But, they have found that when it is done vividly, it appears that your mind cannot tell the difference between reality and your “created reality” – your visualization. The bottomline is that it works.
The question I have had most often in regards to imagery is “…but what do I visualize?” Running is just putting one foot in front of the other right? Simple, right? Yes, and there are many aspects of racing and running that will benefit by imagery practice. Here are just a few:
- Relaxation while running
- Tenseness or nervousness before competition
- “Choking” at the big race
- Maintaining good form
- Coping with unexpected race occurences
- Coping with adverse weather conditions
- Coping with “bad patches” during the race
- Fear of failure
- Dealing with competitors’ behaviors
- Dealing with outside distractors
- Finding your “zone” or groove
- Dealing with discomfort
- Promoting the ability in having a kick
- Promoting tenacity under adverse conditions
- Worrying about the competition
- Maintaining intensity throughout a race
- Improving confidence
- Staying consistent with training
- Persisting on bad days
Almost any of your emotional or psychological factors can be addressed through proper imagery. It will not override your physical limitations. If you haven’t trained, it won’t suddenly make you a world class runner. It will help you remove mental barriers which prevent you from performing or training your best… optimizing how you can perform.
Visualizations usually follow a script (formally or informally). It may follow a race from start to finish or may reproduce the problem point in the race you are working to overcome. The more descriptive, the more detailed, the more you incorporate all your senses… the more effective it will be.
In my next post, I’ll give you one script for runners in preparation for a workout.