The brain is a powerful tool in multiple ways but I think one of the coolest ways is through the power of imagery! Imagery or visualization is the practice of using your senses to create or recreate an experience within your mind. You vividly picture yourself performing the task that you want in the way that you want to execute it. The brain then uses mirror neurons to create pathways in the motor cortex that link the envisioned action with cognitive associations despite your body not actually performing the action. Or in simpler terms, the body and brain have a tough time distinguishing reality from fiction and process the fictional event as if it is reality. You get the benefits of crushing your goals while you lie in your bed with your eyes closed! You can see how adding visualization to your training can result in success, and on the other hand failure.
Our brains are constantly creating links between images and narratives. It is the low-level hum in the background that is making meaning from experiences and calculating potential outcomes based on underlying beliefs. Unfortunately, research indicates that a lot of the images and narratives we are experiencing daily are fear-based and negative. These negative images lead to anxiety, low self-confidence, and poor performances. You see yourself DNF-ing or falling and your brain creates a pathway that reinforces that thought and then you live that experience out which reinforces the belief. The hamster wheel that is neural pathways is frustrating at best and demoralizing at worst. But take heart, we have the ability to create new images and narratives that instill confidence and get that hamster spinning world record wheel times!
Adding Visualization To Your Training
I’ll be honest, most of the athletes I work with don’t like visualization work. It’s hard for people that like to move and do, to be still and present. Like with any skill it takes time to grow and develop. The best thing you can do is start small at first. A few minutes a day can make a major difference. As you become more experienced you can lengthen the amount of time you spend. Below is a simple outline of how to build your visualization practice.
Choose A Focus
Just like you set a goal or purpose with each physical workout, it is important to set a purpose for your visualization. The most common areas that athletes focus on are their next big event, a skill they are wanting to grow, or a fear they are wanting to overcome. Some ideas could be finishing your next race feeling strong, becoming a more efficient hill runner, overcoming your fear of the swim portion of your triathlon, or returning from injury stronger. Grab a pen and paper and write down your future goals, skills you are wanting to grow in, things that you worry about, and areas you feel like you consistently “screw up” or fall short in. Using this list as a guide, narrow down a focus for your visualization practice.
Connect to Your Body
Find a comfortable, quiet place to lay or sit. Eliminate distractions by leaving your phone in the other room and finding a private place. I like to lay on the floor, in the dark, in my closet. Take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and connect to your body. Try to relax and be engaged withyour bodily sensations.
Set the Stage
Create a vivid picture in your mind of your performance using as many senses as you can. Imagine what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like. If thinking of an upcoming race it can be helpful to look at a course map or video before so you can have a better picture in your mind. You can choose to think about it from a first- or third-person perspective.
Engage in the Event
Start from the beginning and work through the entire event. You can start from the early morning alarm and go through your entire pre-race routine before beginning to think about the race. See yourself trail dancing the technical terrain or powering uphill. Think about your posture, your breathing, what you’re telling yourself in those moments…the more details the better!
It is important to keep this positive. We want to build new pathways in our brain of confidence, not reinforce negative ones. If that negative image of you falling pops into your head, either stop and start over and imagine not falling or imagine yourself popping back up and crushing it. You need to remain in control of your thoughts and images if it is taking a path you don’t like then stop, open your eyes, take a few deep breaths, then start again.
Know that your mind is going to wander and that it isn’t as exciting as rocking some intervals. Pencil visualization practice in along with your training and recovery. Make it a priority to engage a few minutes, three times a week to begin with building up to ten minutes a day. The only way to build the pathways we want to build is by consistently engaging them. You wouldn’t expect going for a run once a month to help you prepare, the same goes for training your brain.
Adding visualization to your training is as important as the swim, bike, run workout that you have on your schedule. Training the mind will allow you to reach back during the race and remember the positive thoughts that you had about this particular moment. Just like other key workouts, don’t skip this one.