After winning a championship or taking home a gold medal, elite athletes often say that it’s something they’ve dreamed of for years. They mean that emotionally, of course— their heart’s been set on the goal—but, likely literally, as well. Visualization, in which an athlete sort of daydreams about a race- or game-day performance by carefully plotting it in their mind, is one of the main techniques that sport psychologists teach. “My guess is that most world-class athletes use some form of visualization,” says Vincent Granito, Ph.D., past president of the Society for Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology.
Here’s why it works. He says, “The mind-body connection is so strong that the mind cannot distinguish between real physical activity and imagined. This is why someone might feel sore after a night of dreaming about running. As far as the brain is concerned, you were running.” Sound far-fetched? Studies have proven that it’s true. One study from the Cleveland Clinic had people imagine flexing their biceps. After 12 weeks of this mental training, they’d actually gained physical strength. Their biceps were on average 13.5 percent stronger than before starting visualization.
If you want to try visualization to help you prep for a big game or to achieve a personal best in an upcoming race, it’s easy to get started, since all you really need is your imagination. But, you can’t exactly let your mind run wild. Here are some tips to keep in mind to fine-tune your visions so that they’ll support your goals.
If you’re looking to strengthen the connection between your mind and body, meditation may be something to consider as well. Aaptiv has hundreds of meditations so you can learn the basics and reap the benefits.
Get all your senses involved.
“The word visualization is somewhat misleading because it suggests that we only use our sense of vision,” says Granito. Actually, he continues, “Research has shown that adding in other senses to the picture can make this much more effective.” If you are visualizing a race, game, or other event, don’t just picture it. Also think about the sounds you’re likely to hear, scents you’ll smell, anything you might taste, and how the weather might be or how your muscles might feel. “In a running situation, for example, especially if you know it’s going to be cold or raining or humid, an athlete can get a sense of what that would feel like against their skin,” explains Granito. “The more real the picture, the better it works.”
Try it in the morning.
… or whatever time of day you’ll be able to devote attention to it regularly because visualizing isn’t something you do once and cross off your to-do list. “It’s like a physical skill that needs to be practiced. It won’t work if someone tries to do it for the first time just before a race or workout,” says Granito. It should be a practice that you work on often, and it can take a little planning, he adds. You need to find a time of day where you’ll stick to it regularly. Additionally, it needs to be a time where you have the energy to really focus—like while you’re sipping your morning coffee.
Trying to mentally run yourself through a whole 10K as you’re falling asleep, though, won’t be beneficial. You’ll be too tired to concentrate and will probably doze off before reaching that envisioned finish line. Earlier in the day is better.
Take your time.
There’s another reason why you can’t just think about your race day or game for a few minutes before bed. Visualization works best if you picture the event or activity in real time. So, if you know that 10K will take you about an hour to complete, you should set aside that much time to visualize it. Knowing the course ahead of time helps. You can keep an eye on your sports watch and mentally tick off each mile in the time that it should take you to cover it. For longer events, like an Olympic-distance triathlon, you can break it into segments, suggests Granito. Maybe envision the swim one morning, the bike ride the next, and the run portion the day after that.
Focus on the negative.
Well, not too much, but part of your visualization practice should be thinking about what might go wrong. What if you have stomach issues halfway through a marathon? What if your bike race has a massive headwind? Or, the water is choppy during your tri, or you fall a set behind in a tennis match? “If you dread certain conditions, you could add how you plan to deal with that as part of the visualization practice,” suggests Granito. If you’ve figured out how to cope with setbacks mentally beforehand, they’ll be that much easier to conquer if, and when, they actually occur.
Yes, to reap the rewards of visualization you need to make it a regular habit. But, equally important is refraining from visualization as you get closer to race day or competition—or, at the very least, changing up what you’re envisioning. “People should also limit the type of visualization just before an event,” explains Granito. “Visualizing something calm to help settle your nerves, or visualizing the start of the race is fine. But visualizing the entire race should be avoided because you could burn yourself out.” As you think of something calm, consider listening to soothing music, too. Doing so during visualization can help ease anxiety, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Using these tips, start a regular visualization practice before your next big race or PR goal. It’ll help you train both physically and mentally.
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