The Importance of Visualization in Sports Performance

5 min read


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seawheeze lulu lemonAt the end of September, I ran a marathon – five months postpartum. As anyone who’s had a baby will understand, I didn’t have much free time to run or train, so I wasn’t as physically prepared as I should have been when I approached the starting line. Because I knew the race would be much harder due to my lack of training, I spent as much time as possible working on visualization beforehand.runner and baby

In an article posted on Psychology Today, Dr. Jim Taylor writes that “research has shown that, when combined with actual practice, [imagery] improves performance more than practice alone…it isn’t just a mental experience that occurs in your head, but rather impacts you in every way: psychologically, emotionally, physically, technically and tactically. Think of mental imagery as weight lifting for the mind.” You wouldn’t dream of skipping leg day (or letting your members do the same), so make sure you’re exercising your brain to its fullest extent, too. But how?

The punchline: practice makes perfect. As with all new things, it can be awkward to learn, but there are some handy points to keep in mind (no pun intended) as you set out:

1. Think About Past Performance:

Imagine yourself doing the same skill previously. Remember how it felt? I listened to the same playlist on my phone during all of my training runs, which helped my confidence – I knew what it felt like at mile 18 and I knew because I’d been there before, I could do it again.

2. Prepare For “What If”:

Use imagery to train for all possible scenarios out of your control. September in Colorado could be 30 degrees or 90; I knew it could be snowing or roasting hot. In addition to running in those conditions beforehand, I imagined how I’d react to them on race day. (I don’t mind the cold, but I hate the heat, so I spent a lot of time visualizing a very hot run.) If you think through a variety of conditions and issues (everything from an upset stomach to car trouble), you’ll be better prepared to face them when it counts.

3. Use Your Resources:

Download or access all possible information beforehand. This is especially true of a road race – check out the course map beforehand, and look up certain locations throughout the race on Google Maps. If you close your eyes and picture how you’ll feel at each landmark, you’re more likely to run strong and confidently when you hit those spots.

Sounds easy enough, right? But how does it work?

“When we learn new skills, our brain cells form new connections with other groups of cells, and the amount of myelin surrounding the new runner coming in hotconnections increases. This acts as insulation and prevents the signals from ‘leaking out’, improving memory and therefore skill,” writes James Barraclough.

“Imagery can give you a short-cut by helping reinforce these groups of brain cells responsible for new skills simply by just thinking about those skills.  Donein the right way it can be a close second to actual physical practice…the obvious implication is that if you do both and your opponent does not, you have an obvious advantage already in terms of practice hours and therefore preparation.” When you work out in the gym, you’re training your muscles to be stronger and more prepared for more difficult workouts; visualization is just mental strength-training.

Although most of those 26.2 miles hurt, I finished two minutes off of my PR time. When I run my next race, I’ll be putting as much time into visualization as I do hitting the pavement. It works!

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