You are scrambling up the trail on your last climb. This is it. You are almost done. You finally reach the top and you know you are going to make it. You take a deep breath and tear down the trail, feeling as if you are flying, your breath keeping time with your pounding quads. You’re at mile 98.5, only a mile and a half to go. You feel great – strong and powerful on this last descent. You put the hammer down, feeling the adrenaline course through your body as you sprint towards the finish line. Three more steps. Two. One. Arms raised, you burst across the finish line! The timing clock shows a 32 minute PR! You did it! Then you turn the corner and the Starbucks sign beckons you on the city street. Your 8 mile morning run is done, and your race daydream is over. Time for coffee.
One of my favorite parts of my daily runs is visualization. I love to “picture” my upcoming races, or adventures, and essentially daydream about what they will be like, how they will unfold, and most importantly, how they will feel. Visualization has been shown to be a key component of a well-balanced training plan and an important factor in race day success.
Visualization is the training of the brain. The brain responds to continual stimuli and adapts and adjusts constantly. The more often we experience a situation, the more comfortable we become in it, and the more control we have over its outcome. Visualization allows the brain to “practice” an experience before actually being in it. Research shows that the brain doesn’t know the difference between an event actually taking place, and the simulation of an event taking place through visualization – the brain begins to adapt and adjust in both. This is hugely important for athletes, as it allows them to prepare the brain for competition before actually competing. Just like you train your body to handle the miles you will run in a race, visualization trains your brain to handle the race experience.
When I was a competitive swimmer, part of our regular training program was guided visualization. Our coach would have us lie down and relax. Slowly, he would walk us through our race, from the moment we stepped on the pool deck, to the final touch on the timing pad. It was an essential tool in our training arsenal as it allowed us to regularly experience race day. When the actual day came, we were much less anxious about it because we had “practiced” it in our mind again and again. The fear of the unknown is one of the most stressful aspects of racing. Visualization removes that aspect.
In addition, visualization allows you to see yourself competing and succeeding, thus putting you in charge of your mental game, rather than allowing it to be controlled by the situation. Now, obviously you can’t control the weather, the other runners, or the race day conditions, but you can control how you feel about it. If you’ve seen the race in your mind again and again, your stress level will be much more manageable and your energy can be used for the physical requirements of racing and not on managing your mind.
Here are some ways to add visualization to your training plan:
> Write down your race goals on index cards and tape them in various places around your home and work environment so that you will see them in relaxed moments. You want to imprint your goals onto your subconscious.
> Spend time during training runs visualizing your upcoming race. Picture running the course, feeling your body strong and capable. Allow yourself to “feel” how the race will unfold. You are practicing the “experience” of the race.
> Before you fall asleep, picture crossing the finish line of your next race. Imagine the great feeling you have when you see the clock show your goal time.
> When you first wake up in the morning, allow yourself a few minutes to visualize running strong and relaxed. Feel the sensations of ease you feel when you are running at your best level.
> When visualizing, stay relaxed and allow the physical sensations to come as they will. Don’t try to force your mind into a scenario. If you are having a hard time visualizing a specific aspect of a race, move your attention to something else for awhile, and then go back that specific moment later.
> Be conscious of your breathing while you are visualizing. Visualization is much like meditation; you want your mind and body to be clear and relaxed.
> Don’t force it. Have fun with visualization. It is not supposed to be more “work” in your training plan. It is the fun part – the part where you get to dream about what you want to achieve. Enjoy the process!
Do you have a special trick that you use when you are thinking about a race?