If utilized correctly, visualization can become quite powerful in getting the very most out of yourself.

So we’re supposed to believe that just because we WANT to achieve something bad enough and picture ourselves doing it, it will be done? Well, of course it’s not that easy. Unfortunately, we all can’t dream our way to a world record (sorry to burst any bubbles out there!), but visualization is a powerful tool when it comes to training, racing, and getting the most out of yourself.

The mental side of running is sometimes more crucial than the physical; we’ve all experienced the critical moment in a race where you are faced with the decision to keep pushing or back off and relent to the pain. Callousing the mind to the pain of exertion is one battle, another is working against the limits you may be putting on yourself. Believing you can do better is the first step and one way to achieve that is to picture yourself accomplishing those goals.

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Practice The Mental Game

“Visualization, or what I call imagery, is just one of several mental skills that can have a direct and positive impact on performance…in any sport,” explains Dr. Jim Bauman, PhD. Sports Psychology, currently at the University of Virginia after having worked with multiple Team USA’s and world-ranked individuals. “I say imagery, because we have found that the more of an athlete’s senses: visual, auditory, olfactory, taste, touch, and kinesthetic feel we can include in an imaginary exercise, the more they will be able to ‘feel’ like they are in that experience.”

As with any part of your training, your mental game has to be something you practice often and consistently. “How often do you run?” asks Bauman, “Every time you go out to practice you should be doing some of the employment of some of these practices as well if you want to get good at it.” With repetition you will hone your skills and thus be able to get more out of each imagery experience.

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Internal vs. External vs. Kinesthetic Imagery

When it comes to imagery, there are three different approaches. Internal visualization can be thought of as being done in first person; here the athlete runs through the race in their mind as they would see it from their own perspective. External visualization would be picturing yourself as an outside observer watching you run the race, so in third person.

Kinesthetic visualization is unique in that it will integrate bodily movements and muscle sensations with the mental pictures. “Stand up and get into a good athletic position, [athletes] take their bodies lightly through the motions, not full engagement but firing those muscles to go left, go right, relaxing your shoulders,” explains Dr. Bauman. This style has been proven to be of the greatest benefit to athletes if they are able to fully tap into the experience. Other tips to employ kinesthetic visualization are to simultaneously picture as many nuances of the event as possible in your mind and then veer in the same directions that you’ll turn, shake out your arms if you need a reminder to drop your shoulders, even contract your quads as you imagine climbing a hill.

There is a learning curve and Dr. Bauman notes, “It’s almost like a bell shaped curve…people are going to have different skill levels and experience.” To build on that skill level takes practice and “it’s really helpful to have someone help them through that for awhile…someone who knows what they’re doing help them through that…and then start to hand them the baton, ‘okay, now YOU do that’.”

Your first guided tours through visualization should allow you to relax, close your eyes, follow along to what is being said and really focus on the pictures being described. Have as many details included as possible; how your body will feel smooth and relaxed, who is around you, what the race course will look at certain checkpoints (Is there is a hill at mile 3 that you will charge up?), even some of the smells…integrate as many senses as possible. Dr. Bauman has his athletes visit a particular race course in advance, run the route mentally recording as many details as possible to later include in their imagery experiences.

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Your visualization routine for practices and hard workouts will be similar, and as you become more skilled can even be done during your warmup or stretches. Dr. Bauman suggests you ask yourself, “What do I want this to look like today? Think of what you want to accomplish, what point is challenging and that is where [you] want to dig in a little big more…go through the practice before it actually happens and think of what you’d like to have happen.”

Each athlete will respond differently to the various approaches and may even prefer to cycle through all three depending on the point of the season or the particular workout. Experiment with them all and find which fits best with you and allows you to become fully immersed in the exercise.

What To Look For In A Sports Psychologist

In seeking a sports psychologist you want to be informed of certain terms, standards, and requirements. Not all services call for their doctors to have a license or to be legally certified; find out exactly what your provider’s credentials are. Ask what their highest degree of psychology is and where it was from. Further, ask for an explanation of their confidentiality agreements.

“Some people only have the sports science background and not the psychology background, we have other people that have the psychology background but not the sports science,” explains Dr. Bauman, “there’s a smaller group of us that have both the sports science and the sports psychology.”

From there, inquire as to which level of competition their experience is with and which kinds of athletes or programs they have worked with in the past. If they have mainly worked with high-schoolers and you are a Masters runner, you may not find they fit your needs the best. Go into a meeting like you’re interviewing them, don’t be afraid to ask questions and see how they react. In the end, trust your instincts and how the two of you relate and get along; it’s not uncommon to ‘shop around.’

“Athletes, maybe similar to a carpenter, need many tools to build a house,” professes Dr. Bauman. Visualization is one of those tools and, if utilized correctly, can become quite powerful in getting the very most out of yourself.

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About The Author:

Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.