Ask any of the 511 women and 260 men who qualified for Saturday’s Olympic Marathon Trials, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one who hasn’t visualized him- or herself out on the 8-mile Atlanta loop that makes up most of the course. Whether done in a structured manner, with a meditation cushion and a timer, or more free-form—in the grueling moments of a workout, on the last hill of a long run, or while ripping an all-out rep—the message is clear: Our mental prep matters as much as our physical. Visualization is a key component.
The practice of creating a mental image of a future scenario and watching it play out as realistically as possible is by no means reserved for elites. Athletes of all abilities stand to benefit.
Lennie Waite, a 2016 Olympic steeplechaser who has a Ph.D. in psychology and owns Waite Performance Strategies in Houston, Texas, explains, “Visualization gives athletes a sense of being successful and overcoming difficult parts of races before they actually go through it.” It allows them to find solutions to in-race problems (such as the desire to slow down, walk, or drop out) while also setting positive expectations and rehearsing a strong performance.
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When it comes to your own visualization practice, Waite, who is on the USATF Sports Psychology Subcommittee, emphasizes that there are no rules. Similar to racing styles, what feels natural and effective will look different from one runner to the next.
That said, here are her tips for getting started, with insights from a few athletes who, at the end of this week, will try to turn their own visions into reality on the hilly streets of Atlanta.
Visualize on the Run
“A good place to start is in a training environment,” Waite says. Next time you find yourself digging deep on a run, she suggests picturing yourself in a future race, riding out that tough patch and getting closer to your end goal.
Meagan Krifchin, who finished 7th in the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, has mastered the art of on-the-run visualization. “We do this in some major workouts or tuneup races,” she says of her and her Atlanta Track Club teammates. Krifchin often pushes through the end of a hard session by pretending that she’s in the last mile or final hill climb of the Trials.
Try It at Home
Before I became a marathoner, my mental prep looked a little different: In the days leading up to big races, I’d put headphones on, sit still, and listen to calm music for roughly the amount of time I expected to be racing (around 10:00 for a 3K steeplechase and 33:00 for a 10K), while picturing myself executing the race I wanted to have.
It’s harder to do that for two and a half hours, but that doesn’t mean that my motionless visualization days are over. Now I simply sit or lie down without a timer (sometimes with music, sometimes without), and spend as much time doing a play-by-play of the upcoming race as it takes.
Wherever you choose to visualize, Waite suggests, “Try to make it as rich in detail as possible.” Imagine the bustle of other runners around you, the weather conditions on race morning, the sensations in your legs, and even the smells in the air.
If you’re racing in your hometown or have previewed the course, use that to your advantage. Krifchin, who lives in Atlanta, has done both easy runs and hard sessions on the Trials course, giving her an idea of what’s coming on February 29. Dozens of other qualifiers who live elsewhere (myself included) have traveled to Atlanta in the last year so that their preparations—physical and psychological—can be as dialed as possible.
It’s not necessary to have run on a course—or even have completed the distance—to visualize it ahead of time. Dan Nestor, a Boulder-based runner with a 62:57 half marathon PR, is one such example.
“I have probably imagined almost every possible outcome ahead of the Olympic Trials,” he says, dream results and worst-case scenarios included. But facing a distance twice as long as he’s ever raced, Nestor has had to be creative with his approach.
“Without prior experience, it’s been difficult attempting to comprehend the feelings and adversities I’ll face throughout a marathon,” he admits. “However, living in a running community as expansive and friendly as Boulder, I’ve been able to absorb information from countless others who have faced the marathon.” With years of training and racing behind him, Nestor has plenty of positive race experiences to draw upon as well.
Include Ups and Downs, but Always End on a Positive
Waite encourages runners to envision not just the smooth, effortless miles, but also some of the obstacles that may arise, and vividly practice overcoming them. When she was competing on the international stage, Waite used visualization to prepare for the most challenging parts of races, some of which had derailed past performances.
“What if the race goes out harder than I’m prepared for? What if a gap forms earlier than I expect it to? What if I don’t feel as strong as I should early in the race? I would picture myself relaxing in the face of those struggles and enduring each moment without thinking too far in advance,” she says. When it came time to actually do those things, her mental practice made her much more capable.
While it’s productive to imagine yourself overcoming barriers, Waite emphasizes the overcoming part. If you’re having trouble picturing success—continually imagining yourself fading whenever a competitor passes you, for example—she suggests stopping, rewinding, and starting again. Reinforcing negative outcomes is the opposite of what we’re going for here.
Optimize Your Pre-Performance Routine
Whether you’re racing the Olympic Marathon Trials or a local fun run, visualization belongs in your pre-performance repertoire. In addition to any visualizing you do in the weeks or months beforehand, the night before a morning race or the morning of a night race, Waite suggests spending a couple of minutes rehearsing the race in your mind.
“Picture yourself doing something hard but successfully”—and then line up with the confidence of already having felt it.
Becky Wade is a three-time Olympic Trials competitor with a 2:30 marathon best. Her book about global running cultures, Run the World, was published in 2016.