Is Visualization any Good for Runners?

The other day someone was commenting about how they visualized their HM the night before the race as mental prep, to which I of course agreed. I find this to be helpful. Anyway, then the comment was made (by someone else) that they figured visualization had a bigger impact in “skilled” sports where special techniques (hitting free throws consistently or making that critical putt) are required as compared to running. – Chris

Visualization or mental imagery is a mental rehearsal of the activity you train for. (By the way, visualization is more accurately referred to as imagery nowadays since it is more than just a “visual” related activity. But, both terms are interchangeable.)

Let’s start out with an interesting research stat from Dr. Terry Orlick. Orlick has been the sports psychologist with the Canadian Olympic teams in the past. His research on Olympians in ALL sports indicates that 99% practice visualization an average of 12 minutes per day four times per week. That includes runners (as well as the “skill” sports mentioned in the inquiry).
So, most distance runners also use visualization. And though it may not be used quite as mentioned in the inquiry – rehearsing a skill – it is integral to other aspects of peak performance.

How Does Imagery Work?
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 lying 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.

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 bottom-line is that it works.

The question I have had most often in regards to imagery is “…but what do I visualize?” It’s not a skill sport; 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 occurrences
• Coping with adverse weather conditions
• Coping with “bad patches” during the race
• Fear of failure
• Dealing with competitors’ behaviors
• Dealing with outside distractions
• 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
Each of these is a barrier to peak performance!

Almost any of your emotional or psychological factors can be addressed at least in part 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.

How To Use Imagery
Visualizations often 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 other words it is not merely a passive “thinking about it” activity. It is quite purposeful.

However, imagery can be used DURING your training runs. Here is my personal example I have used for years. During long goal marathon race pace runs; I regularly would imagine all the best runners around me in a race (Rodgers, Shorter, Salazar – OK, it was awhile ago). I would vividly imagine a race unfolding with the ESPN announcer’s voice in my head calling the play-by-play. I would use my watch to keep me going. If my pace dropped off from my goal pace I would have a dialog about these other runners trying to break me. Or I would reframe it to me lying back and waiting to attack (as opposed to something negative like I’m dying and they are pulling away). If I was ahead of my splits I would hear the announcer’s excited voice detailing my breakaway. I could “feel” the separation from the others as I sped up.

It the above scenario, notice that it kept me in the moment. It kept me “competitive”. It also spurred me on to finish my runs quite hard. It is one way I developed a very strong kick and developed my mantra – nobody, but nobody beats me in the last mile. And runners seldom did. I had visualized being successful so many times and pushing through discomfort that it became “natural” for me to go hard the last few miles; catching people all the way; regardless of how I felt physically.

(It is interesting that I always ended up beating those guys – even if only in my mind!)


One service I provide is training in and scripting effective personalized imagery. If you ever need help developing your own script drop me a line.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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5 Responses to Is Visualization any Good for Runners?

  1. run4change says:

    I use imagery big time. Not just because I am totally obsessive either. HAHAHA I think about my runs during the day and I think about them in a good light. But during my long runs many times I fall right into place in a sort of fantasy. I just act like I am really in my “race”. I will keep this up for as long as I can until I just forget about doing it. I imagine the rhythm of my body and feet. I imagine the “zone” that I hope to be in during my race. I listen to my breathing as I relax and think, “Ahhhhh. I love running long. I am doing great.” I think for me though, the most profound imagery that I use is during my long runs and that of the rhythm. The shear repetition of the effort. The coming into my own place on earth where I am just…………..well……………RUNNING!

    That is a beautiful place to be.

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    Couldn’t have said it better! And think of all the visualization you will do in your 100 miler in a couple months!!!!!!

  3. Seoirse says:

    I 100% agree with these points

    • Fear of failure
    • Dealing with competitors’ behaviours
    • Worrying about the competition

    and using Visualization, imagery or meditation or whatever you wanna call it to overcome them. Because I have found in comps a lot of people will dart off and try to keep up with people that are out of their league and burn themselves out within the first 5 miles. I think its super important to visualise your pace before you run a race, otherwise you might get sucked in and burn yourself out very fast and get a slower time than you wanted or at worse case scenario DNF.

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    You have raced some very competitive times and so it’s good to hear your insights and the difference it makes for you. Thanks

  5. Pingback: One More Month… « Chicago Runner

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