The mental side of training is often overlooked – and in this guide, coach Cathal Logue shares how visualization can be an extremely effective mental strategy to improve your performance.
According to Jessica Barr, Sports Psychologist for Sport Ireland, your mental game is sometimes the factor that helps differentiate the champions from the rest of the participants.
She has used the following quote with a number of athletes she works with: “Winners never quit and quitters never win… It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up… Try again, fail again, fail better.“
Runners tend to focus on the physical preparation for upcoming races and it is understandably with the time pressure they are under with other commitments such as work and family.
However, besides building up the miles, improving your aerobic capacity, and sharpening up with speedwork, the mental side of training should also be fitted into your schedule.
By spending some of your training week working on your mental strength, you’ll be better prepared to get closer to the running goals you have set yourself.
Mental Strategies For Performance
When we talk about the mental side of things, there are some common techniques or methods that are used.
All of these represent methods or good habits that you can introduce into your routines.
At the elite level, many athletes use routines to keep them focused and maintain their concentration during competition. Rafa Nadal, the Spanish tennis star, is well known for his routines on the court. According to him, “When I do these things it means I am focused.”
On entering the court, he places his energy drink slightly in front of his water bottle. At every change of ends, he takes sips from the two bottles, the energy drink first and then the water bottle, always in that order.
“I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.” said Nadal.
One of the other famous Rafael Nadal’s ritual includes his routine before serving. He places his hair behind his ear, pulls his nose and adjusts his shorts while bouncing the ball.
Now we are not advocating that you need to have routines so specific and engrained but dedicating some time to developing some good habits will help you maintain your focus while trying to achieve your running goals.
What Is Visualization?
Of all the techniques and methods listed above, visualization is one that you can practice over the whole seasonal cycle – during training, the build-up to races, and pre-competition on the actual day of the race.
Visualization is not only the deliberate practice of picturing positive outcomes that you want to manifest, but also imagining potential obstacles or difficulties that you may face.
In this way, you can mentally rehearse how you will react to these challenges when they present themselves.
The use of visualization has become more commonplace in the last couple of decades with many athletes working with sports psychologists to gain a competitive edge. The great Norwegian marathon runner, Grete Waitz, understood the importance of visualization back in the 1980s.
The winner of 9 New York City marathons between 1978 and 1988 and a silver medallist from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles really understand how training the mind could result in success:
“Exercise and sports are greatly affected by what goes into the mind, and the mind is greatly affected by sports and exercise as well. This is true among exercisers at all levels, despite their different goals.
A major element in mental training is visualization … Visualizing a positive outcome can create a pattern of success, as long as you set realistic and specific goals”
How To Use Visualization
The key to using visualization effectively is in your ability to focus clearly on the positive outcomes. Whether that is running a certain time for an upcoming race or attempting to finish a marathon for the first time, you’ll need to imagine yourself achieving these goals.
An advanced form of visualization is commonly referred to as mental imagery.
It is a technique that challenges us to not only picture or see the positive outcome, but to bring all of our senses into play to really bring the situation to life.
In a study by Canadian researchers where they measured mental toughness, they found that those who scored highest for mental toughness were the ones who most often used mental imagery, including before competition.
Developing mental toughness will help you get through the bad patches in races and become more resilient. Therefore, mental imagery is a useful tool to use.
Write Down Positive Statements
Imagine that you have a 10k race coming up. It goes without saying that you will have some difficult patches in the race, so you need to ensure you stay focused to help you get through this bad patch.
Take a piece of paper and write down some positive statements to remind yourself that you are strong, you have completed the training, you are ready, you have felt this pain and are ok feeling uncomfortable. This is an important step towards consolidating a positive mindset.
Let’s call this piece of paper a script.
For a week before the race, read it out loud to yourself every night before going to bed.
This means when the tough moment comes in the race, you’ll be able to draw on this developed inner strength.
Your Pre-Race Mental Strategy Toolkit
We can now expand on this method by looking at a practical example . . .
Alan is a competitive club runner. At the start of the season, he sat down with his coach with a pen and paper and wrote out his goals. In writing them down and using the SMART method (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound), he had committed mentally to the task ahead. Moreover, by involving someone else in the process (his coach), he had someone there to make him feel accountable.
His A goal was to run under 16 minutes for 5k before the end of the season. He has had a consistent period of training over the past six months and his training sessions over the past couple of weeks suggest that his body is in the shape to dip under 16 minutes.
Despite this, he has been doubting his ability for some time and is associating the 16 minutes mark as a barrier – more mental than physical perhaps!
So again, engaging with his coach, they devise a strategy to help him overcome this lack of self-belief. They aim to prepare him mentally in the same way that the coach has helped him reach optimal physical form.
First, they define his core belief statement. This is a powerful statement of intent and based on facts and draws on past performances and training efforts. This is the start of developing the script that we talked about in the earlier section.
Alan defines his core belief statements as: “I am fit, consistent, relaxed and I am in control of my own race,” and “I have trained hard and smart for the past 6 months and I now feel strong and ready.”
Secondly, they focus on some positive words for when he is actually in the race. This is known as a performance statement. Alan writes it down as this: “Head up, hold your form, and relax.”
This is a mantra that he will repeat to himself during the race, especially when he is feeling tired or going through a tough patch.
Thirdly, in addition to this statement, his coach asks him to consider certain situations or difficulties that may appear during the race and his corresponding responses.
One of the triggers is that someone in the group increases the pace and makes a breakaway from the others, and his response to this is repeating the words: “Close the gap and relax.” This will help him regain focus and keep him close to the group of athletes around him.
The fourth area is the most important, as it is the race the part of the process where the race is rehearsed mentally.
His coach asks him to imagine the race from start to finish. He asks him to really think about not only what you are likely to see, but also what you may hear, and feel.
He writes down the following in relation to this: seeing the clock at the end showing 15:59, hearing his family cheering for him as he is coming down the finishing line, feeling exhausted afterwards, sensing that he has performed well, seeing his wife smiling and looking delighted, and hearing his coach say: Brilliant. Well done. I know you could do it.
With the mental pack of core belief statements, performance statement, responses to triggers and the mental rehearsal of the race, Alan reads his full script every night before going to bed the week coming up to the race.
Applying The Vizualisation Techniques To Your Training
Ok, now imagine that this is you.
The physical preparation for your next running goal has been going well and you have managed to complete all your key sessions, but for some reason, you feel quite nervous and have had self-doubts about your ability to achieve your goal.
By referring to the Athletics Mental Preparation template listed below, you’ll be able to overcome the nerves and develop the confidence needed to achieve your goal.
It’s an effective tool that any runner can use and adapt to their specific needs.