Your legs burn, but feel strong, steady. . .powerful. The mixed sounds of stampeding feet, screams of names, and runners' breathy “ooo, ahhh”s  fill the airwaves.  Yet all you hear is your anthem song blaring inside your head (Eminem’s “Not Afraid”. . .it’s so ingrained), and the tempo of your even-paced breathes (two strides, breath in, two strides, breath out). You feel in control of your body and the adrenaline rush around you, within you.

You could go faster, but you know the drill —  keep the even pace at a personal 6 rate, and raise up to 8+ for the hill surge in a quarter-mile. . .and pass up all those overeager starters.  Those novices don’t know the “Hill of Death” like you do. 

I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.' -Muhammad Ali

You've mustered (and mastered) this steep section so many times, you could dominate it in your sleep. The hills are your majestic secret move, the flyby that no other competitor expects. The water station right at the bottom marks the 12.3 mile mark. And the rest is history. 

Time and distance seem to slip away,  and the hill is already here, and now. A mere step or two into the incline, and your legs impulsively start peddling faster, soaring past one person, two, three, four; many of them panting as you pass them, losing wind (and their willpower).  But you feel weightless and on fire, and oh the irony — you see midway up the long hill, that all-too-familiar lean, redhead competitor (that one who beats you by 30 seconds at best — every time). You lock eyes on the fiery bob ahead, channeling all your fiery passion and pains onto this object, which keeps getting bigger the closer you get.  A magical gust of wind comes out of nowhere from behind, pumping an airy lightness to the backs of your calves.  The seconds of time slice away with each push.

Yes, every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears of training is already paying off, in this very moment.  

Alright. Scenario #3 is complete. You take a deep breath in, and out, and allow your heavy eyelids to slowly flutter open. Your mental rehearsal is done. It’s now time for a good night’s sleep.

Wait . . .whaaaat?  If you’ve read this far and are confused. just know this play-by-play race strategy described aloud was run. . .in your head. That’s right — training for your goals virtually inside your brain (along with training your body) is vital to dominating your fitness/development goals. You can train your body to a pulp, but if you don’t have the right attitude or heart behind your goals, you’re doomed to be a step (or three) behind what you’re capable of.  

So let’s dig into why working your mind muscles is just as important as the physical ones.

What Exactly Is Mental Imagery and Visualization?

Mental imagery is envisioning your goal unfolding as though it’s happening now, in present time.

Think of mental imagery as vividly practicing in your head, like a dress rehearsal for a play.  You set up the scene exactly as though it’s “the Big Day,”and actually enact a star-to-end ideal performance,  You imagine yourself going through each move, over and over. Allow confidence, clarity, and relaxation to wash over you as you go through each step, and think of what you’ll do if X, Y, and Z happen — both the good stuff (passing the football perfectly to the quickest offense player) and the ugly (say, shoes untying at a prime time in a race). If something goes wrong though, rest assured. Simply stop the “video” in your mind, and rewind to begin again (until you got it down pat).

You’ve most likely already informally used mental imagery, in scenarios like:

  • Gazing off into dreamland during class (back in the day!)
  • Fleshing out setting/characters/voice subconsciously while engrossed in a book
  • Letting your thoughts wander in the shower,  replaying conversations or incidents that happened throughout the day
  • Watching a well-acted, emotional movie at a theater, and forgetting about the concept of time, packed-in seats of other people, and that these actors are performers, not these characters
  • Rare déjà vu moments (that  feeling that something “has already happened before” as it's happening)

Who Really Uses Mental Imagery and Visualization exercises?

michael phelps quote

  • Many famous Olympians, including Michael Phelps, who envisions how his entire swim rounds will go (from obstacles and successful moves alike, to switching from his own 1st person perspective to a 3rd person, in-the-crowds perspective) and Michael Jordan, who always stated that he was far from the best basketball player, but was strongly determined in his mindset, viewed failure as learning, and claimed that 80% of a game is purely mental)
  • Famous actors/business leaders like Oprah, Jim Carrey, and Will Smith
  • Everyday people who completely flipped their lifestyles (from Dai Manuel himself, to varsity high school athletes, long-time addicts, world travelers, and started-from-the-bottom popular musicians/writers.)  

It all comes down to the Big Question: how bad do you want it? Dream big like these role models  (and start nicking away at the steps to get closer to your goals).

What Can Mental Imagery Do For You?

How many times have you said “if only I wasn’t so nervous, I would have. . .(won/beat my PR/passed that guy ahead of me/felt proud of my outcome)”?  

all about brain and heart

Like the The Law of Attraction suggests, if you bring your A-game mindset to something, that positive energy you feel sends a subconscious message to your body to match that inner light. Doubt does the opposite — trips you up, freezes up your reaction times, and so forth.

9 Ways that Mental imagery exercises can help you

  1. Increase mental endurance, relaxation, and self-confidence
  2. Decrease stress and anxiety
  3. Help you consciously control fight-or-flight response if something goes “awry” during actual performance
  4. Feel familiar with setting/course and patterns you want to perfect
  5. Tap into the internal motivation (the why) behind your goal), and subconsciously allowing the body to and subconsciously giving permission to the body to give 110% effort if you choose
  6. Prepare/prime your body to mimic same motions/choices you imagined (proven multiple times in studies – see next sub topic!)
  7. Help maintain focus and concentration
  8. Break out of negative, belittling mindset'Help you view competition as fuel (and not fear and fumbling)
  9. Keep you in a state of flow during actual performance (feeling “in the zone”)

Come On. . .Does This Visualization/Mental Imagery Really Work?

Perhaps while reading this, you’re calling *bullshit*. This is for dreamers/wannabes. Well, if you’ve read this far (or simply browsed through the post to skim the answer of this question, good (continue on).

Relevant studies time and time again have proven that mental imagery isn’t just News Age positivity or blind optimism.  Mental imagery will not guarantee 100% of the results you want (because no one can win just by thinking about winning…oh, we wish!), but choosing to couple physical training with mental imagery training (vs. choosing to physically train without it) will get you closer to achieving your goal(s).

How? Well, the body (the internal nervous and neurological systems, to be exact) actually can’t tell the difference between a real action and one that is only vividly imagined. Seriously. Put in the physical work (and dream big), and your body will eventually copy the blueprint of success you have cemented in your mind.

rick majerus quote about free throws

Here are just a few of many significant studies that prove the power of mental training:

Study 1) Weightlifting hip flexing study by Shackell and Standing (group that physically just lifted vs. group that only imagined lifting) 

→ Both groups improved after 2 weeks, in very similar way (28.% for physical training only, 23.7% for mental training only)

Study 2) Basketball free throw study by Australian psychologist Alan Richardson

→ (Group 1): practiced free throws everyday for 20 days

→ (Group 2): practiced free throws only on 1st day and 20th [last] day

→ (Group 3): like Group 2, practiced free throws on 1st day and 20th day only, but incorporated 20 minutes daily of mental imagery; if shot was “missed”, person visualized how to shoot/score next time

Overall Results:

Group 1 improved by 24%; Group 2 had 0% improvement; Group 3 (visualization):  improved by 23% (only 1% off from pure practicing group!)

Study 3) Muscles strengthening study  from Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) researchers at Ohio University

→ researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) at  Ohio University

→ (Group 1): healthy adult subjects that had to wear a rigid (elbow-to-finger) hand/wrist cast for 4 weeks

→ ( Group 2): Same as Group 1, but also told to regularly do 5x-weekly mental imagery exercises (picturing themselves contracting wrists for 5 seconds, then resting for 5)

→ (Group 3): did not wear casts (control group)

Overall Results: 

Groups 1 & 2 did predictably lose muscle/limb strength in wrists/arms, but Group 3 that wore casts (and did mental imagery) lost 50% less wrist muscle  than Group 2 (who did not engage in mental imagery).

In general, all these studies prove that the mind is powerful — that even repetitive thoughts can alter your brain, and your body reactions.

Tips To Practice Mental Imagery/Visualization

If you’re familiar with mediation, mental imagery will feel like second nature to you. If not, no worries. Try out various techniques until you find one that works for you. Think naturally about how you think or daydream, and you’ll already be off to a solid start.

Finding your flow state - athlete meditation

Mental imagery is like dreaming, but going a step further; you set up the vivid scene of “The Big Game Day”, and actually picture yourself in action.  Even though you may think of all the things you’ll do “wrong”, you’ll gradually learn to shift to a view where you’re doing everything “right” — even your setbacks will constructively teach you how to redo (and dominate) a move with some practice.

Here's some tips to try:

  • Get into a very relaxed mental state (a restorative yoga-like place); breath deeply, bask in silence or maybe put on light/atmospheric instrumental music; slowly get eyes to a point where they feel relaxed, but heavy, preferably closed
  • Perfect an all-senses, all-encompassing experience in your mind with the PETTLEP model of imagery (Get really detailed with this!):

Physical (your surroundings), Environment (imagine weather and setting, starting line packed with runners, football field, etc.), Task (the moves/demands required of you), Timing (flip-flop between real-time to slow motion), Learning (master a skill with failure, trial/error), Emotion (how you feel, how your body is reacting to emotion; sweat drops on forehead, underarms, scoring the winning point, etc.), and Perspective (flip flop between 1st person (seeing game/race through your own eyes) and 3rd person, like you’re watching a video of yourself)  

  • Imagine a past incident/game where you felt on top of the world with your performance.  Recreate that same emotion. Feel the butterflies in your stomach, hear the cheers, feel the slaps on the back by teammates of pride. Get familiar with that confident feeling, and let it envelope you.      
  • Find that perfect quote, song, or passage that fuels you to the bone. Let that message/sound weave in and out of your internal performance.
  • Add visual metaphors or symbols to your mental performance (i.e., a stream of light reaching down the sky and into your head and each limb).
  • If you want to get really psyched up and make that full mind-body connection physically move your hands, arms, and legs while envisioning your performance moves (i.e., a perfect golf swing, a side-swept soccer kick, raising your legs up as you sprint). This really cements in what your form will feel like (and many Olympians use this method)
  • In general, just get creative! What does winning/performing in your head feel like, and mean, to you?

Fine-tune the mental drills that work for you, and keep doing them, day in and day out. Do this active imagery for at least 10-15 minutes daily, before practicing goal/sport, after practicing and even in bed/quiet space (morning and/or night).

Triple Up on Brain Food: (1) Think It, (2) Write It, and (3) Say It

Once you get down the mental imagery, power up your mental winning performance with written goals and verbal mantras. Just like your mind can trick the body, writing and saying your dreams out loud only deepens that subliminal feeling of success.

goal without a plan is just a wish

Here's some inspiration/ideas to play around with:

  • Write out a personal mantra/motto (“I am excited to run”, I am strong and unstoppable”, whatever calls to you. Even if your phrase seems cheesy at first, it’ll be a true anchor with time.
  • Map out big goal and list out mini goals to get there (try bubble charts)
  • Repeat (or make a recording) of saying mantra 3x when you wake up, go to bed, or before/after you practice. (say it in a mirror if you want to make it über personal!)
  • Cut/print out articles/pictures and make a “dream board” you can look at every morning or night (and either read or say aloud a positive self-affirmation).
  • Write in a daily goal-specific gratitude journal (what today did you do that was great, made you feel empowered?) List 3-5 things, however small or significant.

best project you will ever work on is you

Whatever you do, focus on intrinsic motivation and move beyond the concrete “end” of extrinsic goals (because even a metal trophy is just a thing, not a feeling).  What do you deeply wish for? Do you want to feel physically and mentally healthier? Feel more energized? Earn some self-worth? Think about it, or get inspired with staff blog writer Thomas Hublin’s post about 10 easy ways to find a deeper purpose to your goals.

At the end of the day, we are far from being walking figures of skin — we are body, mind and soul.

Visualize who you want to be, follow through, and you’re bound to succeed (beyond your wildest dreams).

dead last finish did not start quote

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hannah Profile_picAuthor Bio: Hannah Fredenberg

Hannah Fredenberg is a retail copywriter with a passion (sometimes for fashion) but largely for psychology and lifestyle/wellness topics. When she's not writing M-F about clothing and accessories, you can find her running outside, hitting up the yoga studio, or reading a book (or two) for hours on end. Check out her copy-writing portfolio at https://hannahfredenberg.contently.com/ or contact her through Twitter (@Hfredenberg) or email at [email protected]

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