Mental Imagery to Unlock Your Potential

Simply by reproducing how they want to perform in their mind’s eye they are able to go harder, faster, and farther in their training and races.

Would you believe me if I told you that there is a tool so powerful that it can help you develop yourself technically, tactically, mentally and physically. What if this tool also helped in terms of your overall training and race performances away from the road, trail, pool or wherever you do your endurance sports? What is this amazing tool? Mental imagery, of course.

You may scoff at the idea that picturing yourself in your endurance sport in your mind’s eye can have any benefit to you, but I can assure you, from both personal endurance-sport experience, professional study, and use with some of the world’s best endurance-sport athletes, that mental imagery really works.

The World’s Best Endurance-Sport Athletes Use Mental Imagery

Whenever I have the opportunity to work with or meet a world-class endurance-sport athlete (or any elite athlete, for that matter), I ask them which mental tools they find most beneficial. Mental imagery is the one that is mentioned most often. They use the power of seeing and feeling themselves training and competing to help them get as prepared as possible mentally to perform their best in the biggest events of their seasons.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that these remarkable endurance-sport athletes just do mental imagery before big races. In fact, they use it all year round. Why? Because they know they can benefit in so many ways from imagining themselves performing thousands of times without having to actually do their sport. Simply by reproducing how they want to perform in their mind’s eye they are able to go harder, faster, and farther in their training and races.

Keys to Quality Mental Imagery

So, with the winter endurance-sport season in full swing and the summer season only months away, now is the ideal time to commit to a mental imagery program and make big gains in your training and competitive preparations as you look forward to XC skiing, road cycling, mountain biking, gravel riding, trail running, or what-have-you.

Just like other aspects of your endurance-sport training program, mental imagery won’t work if you only do it every once in a while or inconsistently. You have to approach your imagery the same way you approach the rest of your training program; you should have a structured imagery program that you do consistently. Think of mental imagery as strength training for the mind; you want to strengthen your mental “muscles” including motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions. And mental imagery is the most powerful mental tool you can use to get your mind as strong as your body.

There are five factors that impact the quality of mental imagery. You can develop each of these areas to get the most out of your imagery.

Imagery perspective. Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is when you do imagery. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were actually performing. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body like on video. Research indicates that one perspective is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective with which they’re most comfortable. Use the perspective that’s most natural for you and then experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you in a different way.

Control. Have you ever been doing imagery and you keep making mistakes in your imagined performances; for example, you see yourself tripping and falling during an imagined trail run? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you’re able to imagine what you want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for endurance-sport athletes to perform poorly in their imagery and it often reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in their ability to perform their best. If mistakes occur in your imagery, you shouldn’t just let them go by. If you do, you’ll further ingrain the negative image and feeling which will hurt your efforts. Instead, when you make mistakes in your imagery, immediately rewind the “imagery video” and edit it and rerun the imagery video until you get it right.

Multiple senses. Good imagery is more than just visual, that’s why I don’t like to call it visualization. The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual endurance-sport experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual training sessions or races. Visual imagery involves how clearly you see yourself performing. Vivid auditory images are important because the sound of yourself performing are an important part of your endurance-sport experience. Emotionally, if you get nervous before a real race, you should get nervous in your imagery (and then use mental tools to relax). The most powerful part of mental imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new technical and mental skills and habits. 

Speed. The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will enable you to use imagery to improve different aspects of your endurance-sport efforts. Slow motion is effective for focusing on technique (e.g., for your swimming). When you first start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame if necessary, to see yourself executing the skill correctly. Then, as you see and feel yourself performing well in slow motion, increase the speed of your imagery until you can perform well at “real-time” speed. 

Total Reproduction

For you to get the most out of your imagery, you want to do everything you can to create a total reproduction of your actual endurance-sport experience. Everything that you think and feel (both physically and emotional feelings), every sense you experience, you want to reproduce in your imagery. In other words, you want to make your imagery as real as possible.

Be Realistic in Your Imagery 

Imagine realistic conditions. Imagine yourself performing under realistic conditions, in other words, always do imagery under those conditions in which you normally train and compete. That is, if you often compete in difficult conditions (e.g., cold, heat, rain), imagine yourself on in those tough conditions. 

Imagine realistic performances. If you’re an age-group endurance-sport athlete, don’t imagine yourself performing like a pro. Instead, imagine yourself the way you normally perform, but incorporate positive changes into your efforts that you are working on.

Develop An Off-Season Endurance-Sport Imagery Program

The key to effective mental imagery is consistency. You wouldn’t expect to get stronger by lifting weights once every few weeks. You wouldn’t expect to get better technically in the pool by swimming periodically. The same holds true for mental imagery. The only way to gain the benefits of mental imagery is to use it frequently. 

Set imagery goals. Set specific goals for what areas you want to work on. For example, you might focus on some technical change in your swimming, pedaling circles on your bike, keeping a long and relaxed stride while running. 

Climb imagery ladder. Create a ladder of training and race scenarios in which you will be performing in the upcoming season. The ladder should start with training in simple conditions (e.g., flat ride, easy run) and progress to more demanding training situations, less important races, and increase up to your biggest race of the season. 

Then, begin your imagery on the lowest level of the imagery ladder. Stay at that rung until you reach your imagery goal. When that is achieved, stay at that step for several imagery sessions to really reinforce and ingrain the positive images, thoughts, and feelings. Then work your way up the ladder until you’re performing the way you want in your imagery at the very top of the imagery ladder in the biggest event of the season.

Training and race-specific imagery. Select training and race situations that are appropriate for your level of development. In other words, if you’re a high school endurance-sport athlete, don’t imagine yourself competing in the Olympics. Always imagine yourself performing on a specific course in a particular event. Then select a different training or competitive venue for each imagery session, thus reaching your imagery goals in a diverse array of venues, conditions, and races.

Imagery sessions. Imagery sessions should be done 3-4 times per week. Set aside a specific time of the day when you’ll do your imagery (just like you do for your other endurance-sport training) and program alerts in your smartphone as reminders. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Each session should last about 10 minutes. 

Imagery log. One difficulty with imagery is that, unlike the physical aspects of your endurance-sport training, the results aren’t tangible. An effective way to deal with this problem is to keep an imagery log. A log should record key aspects of every imagery session including the quality of the imagined performance, any thoughts and feelings that occur (positive or negative), problems that emerged, what you did well in your imagery, and what you need to work on for the next session. An imagery log enables you to see progress in your imagery, thereby making it more rewarding and motivating you to want to continue to do it. I include an imagery log in my mental imagery workbook that you can download and print out.

Accept the Challenge

So, here’s the deal. I can’t guarantee that, by committing to a consistent mental imagery program, you’ll be standing on the top of the podium in your “A” race this season. But I will say that if you commit to a mental imagery program, you’ll see benefits in all aspects of your training and racing and you will be much better prepared mentally than you were last season. And if you combine the imagery program with quality endurance-sport training, then I can say with confidence that when you “enter the fray” this season, you will be more motivated, confident, intense, and focused, and you’ll be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to perform my best and achieve my goals.”

Dr. Jim Taylor
Dr. Jim Taylor

Professionally, Jim is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of sport. He’s the author of 18 books, his blog posts have been read by more than ten-million people, is the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast, and has been invited to speak to athletes and coaches in many sports all over the world. To learn more about him , please visit my website.

Athletically, Jim was a world-ranked alpine ski racer in his youth and earned a second-degree black belt in karate before transitioning into endurance sports. After achieving his goal of a sub-3-hour marathon, he became a committed triathlete in which he has completed two Ironmans, many half-Ironmans, and is now focused on competing internationally in Olympic and sprint triathlons.

Visit Jim’s website below to read and listen to more.

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