As we know, practicing your sport in specific ways is the most direct path to improvement in your sport. Unfortunately, the amount of work we can perform each day, week, or training cycle is limited by our work capacity, recovery capacity, and schedule.
Interestingly, there is a training method we can use which allows us to practice our technique, race plans, and prepare ourselves for competition without taking one step in an actual sprint.
Through properly executed visualization, we can trick our brain into thinking we are training or competing, and there is scientific evidence which suggests that practicing visualization can increase your strength, endurance, reaction time, and more!
What Is Visualization
Visualization, also known as mental imagery or mental rehearsal, is the process of using your mind to practice, rehearse, and literally create your best performances in your own head. In sports, visualization can be used to improve performance without physical effort by mentally rehearsing your sport specific movements, competition strategies, and your competitive event.
Research shows that visualization can be used to improve a wide range of physical and mental abilities, including strength, endurance, balance, coordination, reaction time, and confidence in an athlete’s own abilities.
Visualization can also help athletes overcome injuries, mitigate pain, be resilient in the face of stressful situations, and to achieve their athletic goals.
The Science of Visualization
While some might write visualization off as some woo-woo esoteric nonsense, the fact is that the regular use and practice of visualization will make you better at your sport.
Properly executed visualization activates the same neural pathways as actual physical practice, and this neural activation leads to changes in the brain that are similar to what we would see in response to typical forms of training and practicing.
Research has found that using mental imagery can activate various parts of the brain which play a role in how you learn, move, and perform. These areas of the brain include the primary motor cortex, the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, and the cerebellum.
In a study by Morris, Spittle and Perry (2002), those who mentally rehearsed a specific task through visualization were able to improve their performance in the task to a similar level as those who physically practiced the task without visualization.
Additionally, a meta-analysis which looked at the available studies on the effects of visualization on motor performance by Alkemade, et al. (2017) showed that visualization was an effective method of improving a wide range of physical skills, including strength, endurance, balance, coordination, and reaction time.
This suggests that, outside of our physical practice which we do on the track or field, we can use visualization to get even more practice in, and this mental training can improve our performance beyond what can be achieved with physical practice alone.
This is particularly important for sprinters, triple jumpers, javelin throwers, and other athletes who compete in highly technical, high intensity events which are inherently limited in how much training volume an athlete can perform.
Because we can only sprint, jump, or throw so much in a given period of time, visualization gives us the opportunity to further develop our abilities without adding more physical stress and strain to our bodies.
It is believed that visualization can enhance performance by facilitating motor learning and skill acquisition, increasing motivation, reducing performance related errors, and mitigating performance related anxiety or stress. By regularly rehearsing the most perfect example of sprinting we can imagine, we can train our brain to put us in that same place we will be when we go out and physically sprint.
Applying Visualization To Your Sports Practice
How you apply visualization and what techniques you use may vary depending on your sport. For sprinters, the goal is to create vivid mental images of our desired performance, and to repeatedly rehearse this as often as we can.
To visualize effectively, we want to bring in as much sensory stimuli as possible related to our athletic performance. This way the visualization we perform can be perceived by the brain as being a real situation. Think about the sights, sounds, smells, and kinesthetic feel of the environment and your body.
If you are using visualization to improve your block starts, put yourself in that situation mentally such that you can feel the ground, foot pressure in the starting blocks, the sequence of rising into the set position, reacting to the gun, and perfectly executing the subsequent steps. What does the air feel and smell like? How bouncy does the track feel? How explosive do you feel? All of these details matter in order to properly visualize.
In addition to sensory stimuli, I think it is also wise to put yourself in the emotional state that relates to performing at your best. How would you feel before, during, and after you set a huge personal best? How great would you feel throughout this process? By mentally rehearsing both the physical and emotional aspects of you running faster than you ever have, you can turn this mental image of performing well into reality.
I believe that many athletes visualize without even knowing it, but oftentimes are doing it the wrong way. It is common for athletes who are anxious about some aspect of their performance to visualize themselves making mistakes, failing, or otherwise not being at their best. Instead of rehearsing and attracting what you do not want, we need to use visualization to bring us the type of performance we do want. Focus on success, including the physical and emotional aspects, and you will be more likely to attract that success when it comes to race day.
How athletes can incorporate visualization into their training.
Athletes can reap the benefits of visualization by using it on a daily basis. This can be done before practice, during, as well as after. Visualizing just before you fall asleep can be a powerful way to incorporate mental rehearsal, as sleep is where a lot of training adaptations become solidified in our brain and body.
Athletes can also visualize during their warm up for a competition, as this can help prime the brain, the body, and the athlete’s level of confidence without having to tire yourself out with too many warm up sprints, jumps, etc.
During a period of injury, athletes can use visualization to rehearse performing their sport pain free, with full access to their optimal range of motion and performing without fear of reinjury. If a movement hurts, visualize yourself doing it with perform form, no pain, and imagine how great that would feel to have overcome your injury.
How coaches and sports psychologists can use visualization to help athletes.
Coaches can also help their athletes by giving them guidance on how to visualize, what to visualize, and how this practice of mental rehearsal can be tailored to the needs of each athlete.
An athlete who fears hitting the wall at the end of a long race can be guided toward visualizing a strong and energetic finish. Athletes who struggle with their block starts can be instructed to imagine themselves flying out of the blocks effortlessly with perfect ground contacts and leading the race from the start.
If you want to get the most out of your training and perform at your best, you need to practice visualization on a regular basis. Over time it will become easier to create a realistic mental movie which allows you to go through training or competitions without having to leave the comfort of your own bed. As you continue to get better at visualization, you will start to see that the things you have visualized become reality.
Give it a try, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
- Spittle M., Morris T. (2007) Internal and external imagery perspective measurement and use in imagining open and closed sport skills. Perceptual and Motor Skills 104, 387-404.