I belong to the category of people with a “Visual" personality type.
That’s why I’m useless with names (sorry!) and I remember people only by their faces. Maybe that’s also the reason why I can’t lose my strong Italian accent… I can’t see it!
It may not always serve me well, but for long distance running this has proved a very useful skill to have.
If like me, you subscribe to the ever increasing scientific evidence supporting the case for the mind being the limiting factor on endurance performance, training the mind through “Visualisation” becomes crucial.
What is Visualisation?
A consciously crafted full sensory experience which, although entirely in our minds, it feels so real even our bodies are fooled. For all intent and purposes, at least in the moment, there is very little distinction between the mental construct and the real thing.
“Visualisation” is not “imagination”. The most obvious example to explain the difference is in the context of a cold winter day. When you visualise it, you can feel your ears, hands and feet getting numb and you can see the fog of your heavy breathing. When you imagine it, you may be hugging the snowman who is talking to you! So in broad terms, visualisation is based on past experiences with additional details based on expectations, while imagination is a creation from scratch which may be very unrealistic.
Why does it help?
According to research using brain imaginary, visualisation works because our neurons interpret the imagery we created as real-life action.
This has two main effects:
In my view, the latter brings the most benefits to our endurance performance.
It gives us the confidence that, at least in our minds, we practised the different race scenarios and conditions, many times before.
We practised achieving our goals, that being time, pace, position or just getting up that massive hill and finishing the event with a smile on our face. If we do it regularly enough, it builds the belief that the physical manifestation of what we visualised is absolutely normal. Almost inevitable.
If it is so powerful, why don’t we all do it?
It is fair to assume that pro athletes do visualisation exercises. They may be guided by a sports psychologist or they may do it as a way to get in the zone and remain in it to perform at their best, or to practice that instinct of making the right move at the right time to get ahead a competitor.
What about the rest of us, recreational ultra runners and weekend warriors with little time and a great appetite for big volume weeks?
A common problem is that we fall into the trap to use up all our time, to physically prepare for our race.
We switch to thinking mode only in our taper week, which has the completely opposite effect as we start to freak out or get anxious, overwhelmed by the thoughts of all that could happen (and probably won’t)! The inclement weather, that hill, the burning quads, the nutrition, the stairs, the length of the course, bears chasing!
That’s not visualisation, it’s simply panicking - and has no constructive effect.
What does visualisation look like?
Say you are visualising the "35km mark" of a 3 hours marathon attempt.
You may be visualising yourself a couple of steps behind the pace-maker, who is pulling a green helium balloon with a 03:00 and a smiley face written on it. You are bang on the time and you are matching its stride by stride. In your peripheral vision, there are others close-by running strong and purposeful. You are focused on remaining glued to the pace-maker. Your mind is relaxed, your posture is composed, every breath is deep and fills your lungs with energy. Your heart rate is 155 bpm. The temperature is a perfect 17 degrees, the sun is up by now and you are happy you are wearing your orange sunglasses which fit you perfectly and don’t bounce; they make you feel fast.
At 35km mark, you feel a million times better than last time. Of course, you know you trained better, and you had a better nutrition plan. You took a gel 30 minutes ago and for the last stretch, you have a caffeine strip ready, partly open so you don’t have to mess around with it. The pace-maker announces in a loud voice that the next water station is 30 meters away; he will stay only for 5 seconds. There is a large number of people gathering at the start of the table, so you aim to the end of the table, drink a cup of electrolyte and throw a cup of water on your head to cool you down. You overtake the pace-maker by a few steps and execute your plan to perfection. You remain ahead of the pacemaker who is waiting for the group. Water dripping down your back, your quads burn and the feet hurt. But overall, you feel strong and you know that now is the time to get it done. You know you can continue on your own; 7km is your normal commute to work, so it’s in familiar territory.
You re-open your eyes.
Throughout the visualisation process, you see yourself from different angles, in first person and third person, in vivid details.
You can see, feel, smell, hear. You can rehearse your thoughts and actions to reach your goal, in a positive and constructive way
While what works for some may not work for others, these four elements are common starting points for anyone.
To reiterate the importance of practice, I find I can now create compelling visualisations and immerse myself in them pretty quickly. Sometimes all I need is to close my eyes for a minute. Other times, especially if I am running on a treadmill, I can just let my mind go.
While I don’t expect that just by visualising something, it will become real, I am certain that this helps me mentally and physically prepare for and deal with the real thing. And I find it entertaining too! What’s wrong with visualising the perfect race?
And of course, this is a skill that can transfer well to many other aspects of our lives.
I am working on visualising things not going to plan, so I can be prepared for that possibility too.
What’s your next step?
In distance running, like any other sport, our professional careers and anything else worthwhile in our lives, success in reaching ones goal, highly depends on dedication and ability to focus. And turning up of course.
Dedication is the most obvious attribute. Ultra marathon running requires consistency with hours of training, body nurturing and maintenance over a long period time. The impact on work-life balance, sleep, family, finances and general social life is not neglect able. It is quite a big ask. Without total dedication, it is easy to slip off the training and lifestyle regime and this normally results in poor performances, disappointments or, worst of all, injuries.
While the dedication is taken for granted, the element of constant focus, may be less obvious to those new to the sport and to external observers.
I am talking focus in terms of the full depth of field, not the laser pointer attention and concentration during specific sessions.
I am sure I am not the only one, whose mental switch is always ON.
My “A” race or challenge is at the forefront of my awareness for most of my waking hours.
I am constantly assessing how I feel physically, emotionally and mentally in respect to it. Am I stiff or sore from the last workout? How are my quads and feet? Do I feel strong and engaged? Has my breakfast left me feeling full and light? What are my energy level like today? Am I lethargic or ready for action? Was the effort in the session how I expected it to be? Harder or easier? Was I faster or slower than what I had in mind? What was the feeling when I went up the hill? Am I progressing or lacking? What am I fearful of? I am training enough? I could go on forever…
Unlike million of other transient thoughts coming into my mind throughout the day, these thoughts register and are hard to ignore. They are in focus.
I may be in the middle of a conversation and then my full attention can suddenly switch to the twitching of a muscle and a subtle voluntary effort to stretch it, or a reflection on my morning run.
So if we can't turn OFF the mental focus switch, what we do with that focus and what we focus on becomes extremely important because it shapes the reality we experience. And, in my opinion, we focus on what we believe.
I believe that I am in constant improvement and that everything I do during the day contributes and influences my chance to achieving my running goals.
So, simple things like standing up at my desk, correct my posture is a way to actively engage my gluten and build strength. Taking the stairs two at the time instead of the lift, helps me practice my (pathetic) stair climbing skills. Doing a few push ups in the shower, strengthen my core. Eating healthier food affects my general mood and energy, my training and sleeping. Carrying a positive attitude into the day, shapes the results of that day’s running session. Opening up to the advise and ideas of others, allow me to design my own strategies.
Very trivial things of course with very little physiological benefit. For me the value is the intention, conviction, meaning I attribute to them and acknowledging they are part of my training. So I am always in training.
Others may not give importance to theses little nuisances while I do. Everything else being equal, I believe this gives me an advantage.
Maybe I am being too serious about it all and I should chill out! : )
What I am trying to get to here is that there is much more going on behind the scenes, than what meets the eye.
I often say that the actual running session, is the reward for all the mental focus I spend on it.
What do you focus on?
Prior every important event in my life, I consciously step into my alter-ego who has superpowers.
Like all respectable superheroes, I take off my normal clothes, put on a cape and fly. Or run forever.
It’s not just about wearing the outfit of the superhero; It’s a full transformation. I think, talk, act like him. And I can do what he can do. This gives me an enormous physical & psychological power and freedom to conquer and fail.
After all, this alter ego is not really me; I am only partially responsible of his words and actions. And achievements if any. I am still in the driving seat but removed enough so that the strong limiting opinions and beliefs I hold about myself, do not to interfere with his magic.
I do that before important training sessions, races, speeches and business meetings.
This is nothing new. We used to do it as kids when playing fantasy characters, as teenagers to impress someone, we do it every day to conduct business.
The important keyword here is “consciously”; it’s not just part of the motions. It’s an intentional set of actions to become the person I need to be in that circumstance.
While the context changes depending on the situation, the drill is typically the same.
Taking running a race as the pertinent example, this would be:
This is my ritual and I give it a great importance. I found it very effective for my mental preparation and to narrow my focus.
Others have their own other rituals and habits, it is certainly not that uncommon. I see this all the time, in fellow runners carrying small tokens in their running packs, motivational quotes or tattoos on their bodies. I see it in the day to day work-life with people wearing their best suits and dresses. You portrait an image outwards to potential customers, colleagues, the world but also inwards.
I decide to step into my alter ego who is a phenomenal ultra runner who has trained hard and has no fear. This is extremely effective to get the best out of me during races, especially when my normal self is scared to fail. It helps me disassociate a little from whatever happens during the race, most notably the pain, the fears, the successes and failures. It doesn’t make it necessarily easier or less painful, but I know my second self, my alter ego, has all the potentials to pull it off.
What if everyone strived to be more like their best alter egos, every day, in all aspects of our lives?