The Benefits of Visualisation Techniques for Runners

Research points to the importance of training your mind for the best race-day results.


If you’ve seen another runner with their eyes shut, focusing intently before a race, they may very well be practising visualisation.

The practice of visualisation is essentially imagining how a certain event, like a race, is going to unfold in as much detail as possible. It involves mentally planning out how you’ll feel when you start running, how you’ll react to obstacles along the way, and how you’ll push through the temptation to give up so you make it across the line.

“The ability to persevere and summon the grit within is a vital skill for runners,” says sports psychiatrist Ulrich Vieux, director of child and adolescent psychiatry education and training at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Visualisation is the ability to have a pre-performance rehearsal in which a player pictures the events unfolding in their imagination.”

This, in turn, can be a strong complement to physical training that gives runners an edge. Here’s what you need to know about visualisation techniques, including the benefits and how to get started.

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In a small 2021 study published in the Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, non-runners who followed a functional imagery training routine — meaning they visualised how it would feel to achieve their goal — were five times more likely to complete an ultramarathon than those who spoke to a counsellor about their motivation and didn’t visualise their success.

While this study had a small population size, it builds upon other research illustrating the link between mental techniques, including visualization, and high-performing athletes. For example, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, competitive athletes with a minimum of five years of training in the sport showed higher scores on mental imagery skills than non-athletes. Meanwhile, a research article in Frontiers in Public Health points to evidence that cognitive (mental) processes coincide with motor (physical) processes — and that the two have a dynamic, bidirectional influence on each other.

When it comes to visualisation, you don’t need to limit yourself to just one goal, either: In a 2016 study of 65 tennis players, published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, those who used an imagery exercise to pursue two achievement goals performed better than those who used it to pursue just one goal.

Here are four more benefits of visualization for runners, according to experts in the field of sports psychology and psychiatry.

1. It Builds Your Confidence
When you’ve seen yourself take on a race and move through obstacles that come your way, even if it’s through visualisation, that feeling of accomplishment will translate into your physical training and racing.

“Visualisation can help runners to build confidence by imagining yourself running well with good, smooth form and a positive attitude,” says Dr Shira Oretzky, a clinical and sport psychologist in California, and a sport psychology independent contractor for University of San Diego Athletics.

Whether your goal is improving speed, running a longer distance, or achieving a new personal record, seeing yourself do so ahead of time in your mind helps you believe that it’s possible.

“With visualisation, the runner has ‘run the course,’ so to speak, several times in their mind, reducing the likelihood of anxiety and helping them stay confident,” says Vieux. “Mental preparation that complements the physical preparation when training for an event or in pursuit of improving ability will help achieve the zenith of your potential.”

2. It Helps You Mentally Prepare for Obstacles
Visualisation isn’t just about seeing yourself win. It’s about watching yourself confidently navigate anything the race may throw your way and shaping a game plan for getting through it. For example, if you might face harsh weather during your marathon, you can visualise yourself running in a pack when facing headwinds or dealing with rain, and pushing through with speed and strength.

“The runner imagines the undesirable situation, then ‘sees’ themselves overcoming it,” says Vieux. “When such moments arise, they’re not surprised or thrown off because they’re mentally prepared for it and are better able to maintain focus.”

That said, in practising visualisation, it’s important not to hyperfocus on negative imagery. Thinking too much about potential mistakes or less desirable outcomes can cause worry and tension in your body (and decrease your confidence).

“If you notice yourself doing this as a runner, it’s important not to judge yourself for it, but to instead use it as an opportunity to mentally prepare for how you would want to recover from setbacks,” says Oretzky. “It can be an opportunity to visualise yourself practising resilience.”

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3. It Keeps You Calm Under Pressure
When you incorporate visualisation into your training or racing routine, you may find it helps you find calm before you start running.

“It can really help runners manage nerves under pressure, give them a place to focus the mind, and provide a way of getting centred beforehand,” says Oretzky.

You can practice visualisation in the morning to set a positive tone for the day, before you start a training session or race, or even in the evening as a way to relax, unwind, and prepare for the next day’s event.

“It can begin to integrate into the body as well,” says Oretzky. “Visualisation can help runners to feel more at ease, to have a relaxed, smooth form, and to decrease tension in the body.”

4. It Can Help You Train (Even When You Physically Can’t)
If an injury is keeping you on the couch, visualisation allows you to continue preparing for the race.

“It gives you the ability to continue training mentally when training physically may not be possible because of injury or another impediment,” says Vieux.

Although it may not feel like you’re truly “training,” keep in mind that this mental component is what differentiates the best athletes from the rest.

“As a sports psychiatrist who has worked with professional athletes, one of the most memorable remarks I have heard came from a mentor, who said that the key difference between a baseball player stuck in the minor leagues and a major league baseball player was how they prepared mentally,” adds Vieux. “Many of our most admired athletes have remarkable mental strength and an ability to overcome obstacles.”

How to Incorporate Visualisation Techniques Into Your Training and Racing
Start with the basics when you begin your visualisation practice (say, imagine yourself running a course), then gradually add more details to your imagery.

“See and hear the spectators cheering each step of the way, imagine yourself keeping a certain pace and form, and see yourself reaching the final stretch,” says Vieux. “Add details like different types of weather, including heat and humidity or rain, and see yourself forging ahead while staying focused on your performance.”

To practice this, get comfortable in a quiet place (you can also listen to relaxing or pump-up music, if you’d like) — and hone in more on the process of your training or race, rather than just the outcome (which can add unneeded pressure).

The frequency and duration of your visualisation will be individualised, just like physical training, but you can begin by practising daily for five to 10 minutes. You can start at any point during your training, but keep in mind that consistent practice will increase the effectiveness.

“Visualisation is a skill that can be practised and honed just like anything else,” says Oretzky. “Just as runners train their bodies for a race, they can train their minds for success as well.”

Here are three specific visualisation techniques Oretzky recommends to get started.

1. Imagine the Race in Detail
Visualise the race course of your next competition and see yourself running through it. Studying the course map beforehand and looking at photos or videos of the area can be helpful for this.

This technique can help you feel more comfortable with the route, strategising how you’ll approach different components of the race, like hills, and preparing mentally for how you’ll manage challenges that may come up, like when you start to feel fatigued toward the end.

2. Replay a Best Performance
Recall or replay your PB in as much detail as possible. This will involve engaging your senses: What did you see? What sounds did you hear? What did your body feel like? How did it feel to cross the finish line?

Imagine playing a highlight reel to get pumped up and excited about your performance. This visualisation technique can help you feel energized for the next challenge you take on.

3. Practice a Centering Visualisation
This technique incorporates deep breathing to decrease tension in the body and helps to anchor the mind. As you slowly inhale and exhale, imagine yourself running with a relaxed posture, smooth strides, and controlled breathing.

Next, integrate performance cue statements to centre your mind, such as “stay strong,” “trust your preparation,” or “you’ve got this.”

If you have a disappointing training session or race after visualising, continue with both your mental and physical training, adds Vieux. Tell yourself: “This is not how I wanted it to turn out, but I have experienced similar situations in the past and have excelled.”

With practice and patience, you’ll find your visualisation muscles strengthening.

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