By: Rachel Moran
Posted on September 1, 2015
What if the answer to making big improvements in your running is as simple as visualization? Sure, everyone from your boss to your personal trainer touts the power of positive thinking, but there is a school of thought that doing this can actually help. Nobody is saying you should give up on maximizing your physical training, following an excellent diet and wearing the right gear — those things will always matter — but believe it or not, studies show that using your imagination can genuinely improve your performance.
Team NB's Stephanie Garcia uses yoga to center herself and prepare for upcoming races.
Start by simply visualizing yourself running: Choose any course (technology can help if you're preparing for new territory). You're in your personal-best zone. Imagine feeling awesome through the whole course and crossing the finish line strong and happy. How do you feel now?
Maybe you're skeptical that this method makes any difference in your performance, but studies prove otherwise. For example, a 1992 study showed the benefits of mental rehearsal among 70 trampolinists. Novice and experienced athletes were split into two groups. One group practiced skills and then visualization, while the other group practiced skills and then a different challenging mental task. The group that practiced vivid visualizations improved significantly over the control group.
This improvement had two causes: slight nervous-system changes that helped the brain get ready for the real thing, and the confidence that comes along with a prepared mental state.
"I visualize my races during training and it has helped me know what to expect once the race comes," says Team NB's 800m star Brenda Martinez. "The mind cannot distinguish what is thought and what is reality and it's not too much of a shock when I compete."
"I really believe in race visualization," says #TeamNB's Jenny Simpson. "I think training the mind is equally as important when it comes to being on that edge against the best in the world."
When you visualize, your brain creates a memory file and then retrieves it when you need it. Use this to your advantage! Build upon your initial visualizations to imagine yourself succeeding through any obstacle. Imagine bad weather or the crush of a crowd. Feel your muscles cramping, or pretend you need water badly. Imagine yourself pulling through these situations and continuing on as if you were really in the moment.
Your brain now has memory files of triumph over adversity. You've created a special kind of confidence, which in turn frees you up to run your best.
"I always visualize myself having an extra push on the last bend and kicking hard to he finish line," Brenda agrees. "I do workouts that simulate the end of a race and I do it with tired legs. I have learned to push even when it's getting tough."
Brenda Martinez visualizes her next race after finishing up a workout.
See It, Feel It
A lot of research has been done around confidence in sports, but one visualization study from the '90s really stands out. It's a bit mentally complex, but it could be the jackpot tweak to your visualizations.
Visualize feeling your success with confidence, happiness and pride. See yourself in two ways: winning the race and feeling the emotion behind your win. Sports psychologists call this type of visualization "mental imagery," and their work argues that it's a huge factor in the level of confidence an athlete can achieve.
Running is such a mental sport, no matter how well you prepare. So much depends on your confidence; why not try boosting it with these visualization practices? Just close your eyes and let your imagination run.