Mental imagery, or visualization, can be a powerful tool to add to your mental skills toolbox. Like all things in endurance training, specificity and practice are the foundation for developing and utilizing this tool effectively. Imagery creates neural adaptations by simulating real experiences in the brain. It leads to physiological arousal which can modify heart rate and influence breathing patterns. When practiced effectively, it can even lead to neuromuscular activation. Let’s take a quick look at some of the key characteristics of a solid mental imagery practice, and hopefully introduce one or two new pieces of information for you to incorporate into your training.
Let’s start by asking if you are aware of how you visualize a performance. Do you visualize yourself in the first person or the third person? In other words, are you seeing the desired performance through your own eye or from another vantage point? There is no right or wrong answer here. You can even visualize someone else or yourself as someone else. The key is to be intentional and consistent in your practice. Choose one and stick with it. There is evidence that some perspectives are more effective in certain sports or situations, but for now, pick a perspective that works for you and try it out.
Next, bring in as many senses as you can to support your visualization. Mental imagery can go beyond our ability to imagine something in our mind’s eye. Evidence suggests that incorporating sound, touch, smell, taste, and movement into our practice leads to enhanced outcomes. Examples of this could be going to the beach to visualize an ocean swim, or sipping on your sports drink or gel of choice as you visualize taking in nutrition during an event. The more vivid and true to the target experience we can make our practice, the better. After all, we are using all our senses when we race, so it makes sense to bring them all into our mental preparations for key events. Vividness and functional equivalency are directly linked to enhanced outcomes.
Last but certainly not least, know your goal(s). Be very clear about what it is that you are working toward, and bring it into your visualization practice. Is it a pace that you are trying to hit? Is it a technique that you are trying to master? Is it sometimes one and sometimes the other? Be very clear about your goals for each aspect of your event. Connecting goal structure and mental imagery practice can have a powerful impact on motivational development. It can help regulate stress, control arousal levels, manage emotions, and build confidence through increased self-efficacy. This in turn feeds back into the development of our general and specific motivations.
For those of you that practice visualization, hopefully there is something new here for you to try out. If you are new to mental imagery and want to develop a practice, start small. First, develop your ability to visualize and to control what you see. You can practice on anything. Picture a ball. Now, make it blue. Can you turn it into a soccer ball? How about a basketball? The more control we have over our visualization, the more effective it will be. All things in endurance sports take time to develop, and this is no exception. Practice and be patient. The more time you put in, the greater the potential for it to powerfully influence your future performances.