I think it’s a rite of passage for runners to hear, and to tell others, that more than anything, running is simply “a mental sport.” If you think back to the time in your life when you weren’t a runner, when you heard others talk about their impressive running accomplishments — running a super fast 5k, racing a marathon, or completing an ultramarathon, for example — those runners probably told you that the feats were simply “mind over matter,” that “anyone could do this stuff.”
Does this ring a bell?
Fast forward to today, now that you’re a runner, and the roles have changed. Now when you’re the one talking about your latest running exploit — an impressive personal best you set after years of working hard at it, running for days on end through the mountainous wilderness somewhere, or whatever the case may be — you’ve also probably told others that “running is a mental sport.”
You’re probably shaking your head in agreement now, right!?
What is there to running and “mental fitness,” for lack of a better phrase? Is there actually something to this idea? Below, we’ll explore in greater detail the idea of visualization — a specific type of mental training — and discuss how this technique could potentially supercharge your runs and thus, your life.
Visualization: but one type of mental training technique
The longer you stay in the sport of running — and specifically, in endurance training and racing — the more likely you are to encounter the idea of mental training (or brain training). The basic idea here is that just as it’s important to train your body to be able to withstand the rigors of race day — hence working on your stamina, speed, and power — it’s also just as important to train your mind to be able to withstand the rigors of working hard and competing.
It’s an axiom in a competition that you will suffer at some point or another. You will inevitably hit a rough patch where you question why it is that you do this stuff, and if you’re like most people, you will come to a sort of proverbial crossroads. You can decide to back off and slow down or give up altogether, or rally, and keep pressing through the rough patch.
Having the mental fortitude to get through rough patches during competition is a hallmark of brain training. Professional and Olympic-caliber athletes, as well as the weekend warriors among us, alike all stand to benefit from brain training. Whether your ability to pay your mortgage is on the line, or just your own sense of ego, learning how to pull through difficult patches is key to a successful performance on race day.
Visualization, specifically, is just what its name implies: it’s the act of visualizing yourself during competition or during a hard workout. What or how you visualize will be completely unique to you; others may visualize differently, and that’s ok.
Some examples of scenarios that endurance athletes may visualize include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- Visualizing standing on the starting line, feeling a pep in your step and ready to rumble
- Visualizing crossing the finishing line, securing a strong performance and an impressive personal best in the process
- Visualizing finishing each repetition of a hard interval workout stronger than the last
- Visualizing feeling strong throughout an entire workout and enduring through the hard patches instead of simply giving up and quitting
Again, it doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic caliber athlete or someone who competes recreationally. Visualizing — and by extension, projecting how you anticipate feeling or would like to feel during critical points in a workout or race — can be an excellent tool to put you in a positive mental headspace when it matters most.
Most importantly, we can think of visualizing as a tool to give us greater agency when it comes to working hard during practice or during competition. While there are many things we cannot control — such as the weather — one of the things we can control is our attitude and how we react to the scenarios in which we find ourselves.
If athletes spend an entire season visualizing race day and playing out all the possible scenarios that may arise — great weather, inclement weather, feeling strong, feeling weak, and the like — they may find themselves at greater ease on race day instead of being anxious and trepidatious of the day.
Visualization as a transferable skill
We runners often remark that running is a great instructor and that the lessons we learn from running — from training hard and from competing, in particular — are completely transferable to other areas of our (non-running) lives. So it is with visualization as a tool, too.
If you’re anticipating a major meeting you’ll be leading, an important conversation you need to have, or really any other major (or consequential) event in your life, you may find that visualizing the event, conversation, meeting, or whatever before it happens makes the actual thing much less stressful.
It may sound really cheesy and corny, but again, visualizing is about agency. We can only control a limited amount in our lives, but one thing that we can always be in control of is ourselves and our attitudes and reactions to the situations in which we find ourselves. Here’s a great example: when it comes time to talk to your manager about a possible raise or promotion, I bet you will find yourself much more relaxed, comfortable, and empowered leading the conversation for the first time, in real life, after you’ve visualized (if not also practiced!) what you’re going to say a thousand times in your head.
Visualizing to supercharge your life and your runs
Visualizing has a meditative aspect to it, especially when you think about all the inward-reflecting that the act necessitates. Generally speaking, very few of us slow down and take the time to deliberately think about our goals — and what we need to do each day to reach them — and visualizing allows for this to happen pretty seamlessly.
The next time you start a new training block for a big race, I encourage you to take the time, even during your run, to visualize your future self.
- Visualize how strong you want to feel as you finish each interval of a hard workout.
- Visualize how confident you’ll feel standing on the starting line, knowing you put in the work and are ready to rumble and compete.
- Visualize the burning in your legs and lungs mid-race and how you’ll be able to find another gear and dig deep through it.
Visualize the immense amount of self-reflection you’ll have undergone during this training block, think about all that you’ve learned about yourself as a person and as an athlete, and consider how much running, training hard, and competing has allowed you to be challenged and grow as a person.
Perhaps the best part about visualization is that it’s free of cost and something you can start today, right now, on your next run. With so much on the line, and so much opportunity for growth, there’s simply no reason not to.