Visualization and Mental Planning for Better Racing
As runners, we’re always looking for that extra edge in training to make us faster and more consistent on the race course. Understandably, most of our efforts to improve are geared towards the physical – lowering lactate threshold, increasing muscle power, improving form. Enhancement to any of these physiological systems is going to result in faster race times and should be the main focus of your training plan. However, if you’re already pushing your physical training boundaries, it’s possible that adding mental planning and visualization to your regimen can help you squeeze out that extra one or two percent on race day.
Some of the world’s top athletes, from professional golfers to Olympic Track and Field medalist, practice mental imagery and visualization in their training. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the power of mental imagery is the gold-medal performance of Mark Plaatjes at the World Championships marathon in 1993. Plaatjes extensively practiced visualization techniques while preparing for the World Championships, so much so that he knew every undulation on the course and had “run” every possible scenario of the race before he arrived in Germany. When the real racing began, Plaatjes was able to summon his reservoir of confidence and mental preparation over the final miles and snatch victory just 3 minutes from the finishing line.
Mental training and visualization clearly works for high-caliber athletes. Here are some specific visualization and mental planning tips and strategies you can implement to improve your performance:
You can practice visualization techniques in your training to prepare for every possible scenario and to improve your execution on race day. All it takes is 10-15 minutes a day to increase your chances of success.
Be specific and detailed
When visualizing your race, be as specific and detailed as possible. Imagine yourself at the starting line, surrounded by thousands of other high strung runners – is it hot, is it cold, what are you wearing? When the gun sounds, envision the acceleration in your heart rate and the claustrophobic feeling as the stampede begins. By conjuring up these emotions, sights, and sounds, you can prepare yourself to remain calm, collected, and execute your race plan in a chaotic environment. The more specific you can be with the sites, sounds, and emotions, the more calm and confident you’ll be on race day.
Visualize the good and the bad
Likewise, visualize positive and negative scenarios. Let’s face it, no matter how fit you are, a race is going to hurt at some point. Imagine yourself working through those bad moments during the race. This way, when they inevitably occur, you’ll know exactly what to do and be confident you can work through them.
Furthermore, visualize what you’ll do and how you will feel should something go wrong. What if your shoe comes untied or you have to go the bathroom? By visualizing these scenarios, you’ll have a specific plan in place and instead of panicking, you’ll be calm, cool, and collected.
Boost your confidence
Another advantage of visualization in training is the opportunity to boost your confidence. It’s been well documented that high confidence correlates to an increased level of performance. By visualizing yourself succeeding, you can subconsciously improve your belief in yourself and your abilities.
To enhance your self-confidence, try implementing self-affirmation and self-talk into your daily routine. Spend 5 minutes each night before bed standing in front of the mirror repeating specific, positive messages to yourself. The mirror helps engage the visual receptors in the brain and helps internalize the positive messages. Phrases such as “I am fit, I am fast, I am going to win” tend to work well. Create your own self-affirmation phrase and spend 5 minutes repeating it to yourself. Before you know it, there won’t be a doubt in your mind you’re going to perform on race day.
Before the race
As race time approaches, you can’t help but get nervous. After all the hard work you’ve put in, you don’t want it to go to waste. Luckily, you can implement the visualization techniques you used in training to reduce these pre race nerves.
Recollect all your great workouts
If you find yourself getting nervous before the race, start thinking back to all the great workouts you had during your training. Think back to that great tempo run you had where you floated effortlessly over the road, or visualize your last successful race and begin to conjure up those same feelings of accomplishment.
Focus on what you can control
We get nervous when we don’t know the outcome of things, like when the killer is going to jump out of the shower in a scary movie or how we’re going to feel half way through the race. Take the focus off those elements of the race you can’t control (your finishing time, your opponents, the weather) and direct them to outcomes you can control. Visualize yourself executing your race plan, going through your warm-up routine, and even focusing on your breathing. By directing your thoughts to those physical and mental aspects you can control, the nerves will dissipate and you’ll increase your chances of success.
During the race
Racing is tough, there’s no two ways about it. At some point on your way to a great race or a new PR, you’re going to hurt and you’re going to have self-doubts. Letting negative thoughts creep into your mind is one of the easiest ways to derail your performance.
Stay positive with self-affirmation and self-talk
Before you begin the race, decide on a few easy to remember mantras that will help you gain confidence and persevere through any rough patches during a race. Make sure that all the words in your mantra are positive. For example, use “I am strong, I can do this” as opposed to “push through the pain, don’t give up”. The second mantra elicits negative connotations with the words “pain” and “give up”.
Implement mental cues
Likewise, you can employ mental cues to remind yourself to focus on proper form when going up a hill or when you start to get tired. I like the mantra “relax and go” in the last mile of a race to remind myself not to tighten my face and shoulders as I get tired. Find your positive mantra and use it when the going gets tough.
Granted, no amount of mental imagery and visualization during training and racing will compensate for a poor training regimen. However, if you’re already pushing your physical limits and want to take your race performances to another level, incorporating visualization techniques into your training and racing can provide the advantage you need.