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?