Visualization, or mental imagery as it is sometimes referred to, can be a useful tool for athletes in conjunction with their typical physical training. Visualization involves the mental rehearsal of a movement or activity without its physical execution. It is estimated that between 70%-90% of elite athletes regularly practice visualization (2). If elite athletes are doing it, is must work, right? Well, let’s take a look at what the potential benefits are and what the research tells us.
There has been a good deal of research that has investigated the effects of visualization on the brain and on subsequent athletic performance over the past few decades. It has been demonstrated that visualizaing a motor task from the first-person perspective (i.e., imagining that you are performing the task) activates the brain as if one were physically performing the task (2,3). This means that imagining yourself performing a physical task can, in turn, help strengthen the neural pathways in your body involved with the execution of that task as if you were physically practicing it. Whether it is perfecting your swim stroke, running upright with relaxed shoulders, or cycling with a faster pedal cadence, visualizing oneself performing the task successfully can help develop and strengthen the neural pathways in your body so that successfully executing it in training and in competition becomes more likely.
Aside from performing physical tasks, visualization has also been used in order to stimulate a sense of relaxation or to prepare onself mentally for an upcoming task, both before or during competition. In an interesting study conducted back in 2003 by Thelwell and colleagues (4), study participants completed a simulated indoor triathlon competition before and after receiving a “mental skills” training. Included within this training was imagery, or visualization. Triathlon times improved after receiving the mental skills training, and, interestingly, visualization was used both before and during competition in order to promote a sense of relaxation, prepare for an upcoming sensation (e.g., pain at the end of a race, the feeling of running after cycling, etc.), or to simply distract oneself from the pain they were feeling.
Putting some of the aforementioned research into context for endurance athletes, it seems that visualization can be a useful addition to an athlete’s normal training as a way of enhancing the development of neural pathways involved with physical movements as well as a method of promoting relaxation and mental preparedness. The following offers some practical recommendations on integrating visualization into your training (1).
Using visualization outside of competition to improve physical skills, relaxation, or mental preparedness
Frequency – ≥1x/week
Duration – 5-20 min/session
Visualization of physical tasks – swimming with proper form, running with good technique, cycling in a relaxed position, successfully executing a transition in a triathlon competition
Visualization for relaxation/mental preparedness – imagining oneself being relaxed during a swim start of a triathlon, visualizing oneself being calm and holding back from going hard too early in a running race
Visualization during competition in order to promote relaxation or mental preparedness
Frequency – as needed
Duration – as needed
Visualization in order to promote relaxation – imagine feeling relaxed in the water during a swim start of a triathlon, focus on breathing while running in order to remain relaxed, think of staying relaxed and gliding through the air while cycling
Visualization in order to promote mental preparedness – imagine the sensations of pain and discomfort at the end of a race and prepare to deal with them, prepare for the feeling of running off of the bike in a triathon, run through the steps of transitioning from the swim to the bike while you are still in the water during a triathlon
So it looks like the pros may be onto something with their visualization practice. Give it a shot for yourself and see if it works for you. Whether you are looking to master a swim technique or are looking to simply feel more relaxed during competition, visualization may be a potential solution.
Driskell, J. E., Copper, C., & Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance?.
Mizuguchi, N., Nakata, H., Uchida, Y., & Kanosue, K. (2012). Motor imagery and sport performance. The Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 1(1), 103-111.
Ridderinkhof, K. R., & Brass, M. (2015). How Kinesthetic Motor Imagery works: a predictive-processing theory of visualization in sports and motor expertise. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 109(1), 53-63.
Thelwell, R. C., & Greenlees, I. A. (2003). Developing competitive endurance performance using mental skills training. The Sport Psychologist, 17(3), 318-337.