How Visualization Can Lead to Training and Racing Breakthroughs
WHAT IS VISUALIZATION?
Visualization is the most important mental skill that an athlete can use. It’s a performance enhancer that costs zero dollars, and that you can take everywhere. Visualization is when you use mental images to clearly picture a future event.It’s the process of an athlete imagining themselves performing a very specific activity or skill with a very specific intended outcome.
YOU ARE ALREADY USING VISUALIZATION
Visualization plays a central role in our training. Think about a time when your coach prompted you to improve your cadence. Your coach will tell you to think about keeping your feet underneath you and your stride feeling light and quick. Putting those verbal cues into action takes work. To make the habit stick, you must repeat the action tens of thousands of times. Athletes will rely on mental imagery, this is what it would look and feel like to run with quicker feet in addition to practicing that action. Because improving cadence involves feel, that athlete will most likely add the sensation of what light and quick feels like to the pictures in their head. This is visualization and that process helps athletes develop new skills more quickly because when an athlete imagines themselves using a new skill or doing an activity they activate the same neural pathways during their visualization as they do when physically doing the activity.
- Choose your Goal or Intention
When first learning how to visualize, it’s important to select performance goals or intentions for your visualizations that are within your control. Running cadence is the perfect example because it’s something within an athlete’s control and doesn’t rely on external variables or comparison to other athletes’ performance to improve.
- Distraction Free Environment
Once you’ve picked your intention or performance goal that you want to work on, find a distraction free environment like a quiet room in your house. I like to have my athletes sit or lie down, whatever feels most comfortable and relaxing.
- Deep Breathing to Relax Body & Mind
A few cycles of deep breathing, like 4-7-8 breathing, can help quiet your mind and relax your body, priming you for the visualization process to come. Take a few deep breaths to make sure you’re relaxed and ready to focus.
- Visualize with Pictures
Once you feel relaxed, conjure up imagery that matches your intention.Go through the process from start to your desired outcome. It is best to start in the 3rd person. For example, in the third person, see yourself running with light, quick strides with your feet landing underneath you. Repeat this image multiple times.
- Add in Key Details From Your Environment
The key with the images is to comprise them of detailed environmental characteristics too to make the entire process feel more realistic. For example, imagine your surroundings- you are outside running in your neighborhood, you notice the same houses you see each day, the same cracks in the road, the same familiar people and animals.
- Add in Associated Feelings
Once you’ve run those images through your mind a few times and they begin to feel realistic, start to add in any feelings you’d associate with your activity or goal with your images. For example, you might focus on what your breathing would feel like, or your foot strike, you may also try to bring up some feelings of lightness and ease of movement that comes with increasing cadence. I even like to ask my athletes to think about and bring up outcome related feelings like joy.
The physiological sensations and feelings that accompany doing the activity play a key role in creating a full picture of the process. These feelings make the visualization more realistic.
Repetition is the key to making a visualization effective because these sessions allow the athlete to activate the same neural pathways they would normally activate if they were physically doing the activity itself.
Make sure to run the entire visualization from start to finish over and over. I often suggest my athletes do this from anywhere to 5-10 minutes depending on the goal of their visualization.
- Shift Perspectives
As you become comfortable seeing and feeling this process in the third person, it can be helpful to shift into the first person to further make visualization more realistic. Picture, and feel yourself running with lighter feet. Feel your lower core tighten, and your body tilt forward to accommodate faster foot strikes.
USE PERFORMANCE AND PROCESS ORIENTED GOALS
Performance and process oriented goals form ideal intentions for visualization because they rely on things completely within the athletes control. In contrast, outcome oriented goals, like winning a race, wouldn’t be a great intention to focus on during visualization because that outcome is not fully within control of the athlete. It is determined by other athletes and their performance. A better goal related directly to performance in a race might be running a specific time, since the athlete could visualize what that looks and feels like, as well as all of the other environmental factors and context surrounding the performance.
ADD IN YOUR WHY
Add in an accompanying WHY behind your image. Adding meaning behind your visualization helps make the visualization process unique to you and more realistic.
Repeated visualizations make them more vivid and more effective over time.
Imagine your activity in real-time because it’s the most accurate representation of the actual tempo and speed at which you will do the activity. Don’t unnecessarily speed up or slow down your visualization without intention.
When developing a new skill, it can be helpful to slow down your images into slow-motion to better understand the different components and movement patterns that make up the skill
Experienced athletes tend to use visualization more often, but it is an effective tool for athletes of all ability levels for developing new skills, as well as introducing new strategies into racing and training, or even prompting different mental states, like feeling calm before competition.
Both first and third person visualizations can be effective. BUT, Perspective depends on the task. For example, new skills that involve biomechanics might better be visualized from a 3rd person or external perspective first, while visualizations that might involve feelings, like pre-race nerves are better visualized from a first person perspective.
Use all your senses whenever possible to create a more vivid visualization experience.
WHEN TO USE VISUALIZATION
Working through pre-race nerves.
Visualizations can help athletes better cope with and work through pre-race nerves. Begin your visualization process by picturing yourself in the environment where you feel most nervous and identify, and feel whatever emotions come up. Try to imagine the feeling in your chest, stomach, the anxiousness, whatever symptoms generally arise for you when nervous. Then visualize yourself responding to those nerves, perhaps you are doing a priming warm-up, or deep breathing. I like to have athletes really focus on breathing out the nerves they feel and imagine the sensation of no longer having those nervous sensations. Repeat that process in several different sessions before your race.
Preparing for a tough workout.
In the same way that visualization can help athletes cope with pre-race nerves, the same approach can be adapted to preparing for tough workouts when an athlete combines the sensations and feelings that come up before a tough workout with detailed visualizations of the athlete performing the tough workout optimally in both the 3rd and 1st person.
In the same vein, this approach can be applied to implementing race strategy, dealing with perceived challenges in specific parts of the course and applying process oriented goals at various times throughout an event. There are almost limitless opportunities and examples for best practices. One that comes to mind is dealing with technical terrain, since this is both intimidating and highly neuromuscular.