Mental Rehearsal for Runners

As I was browsing through my collection of running tomes (Daniels, Noakes, Magness, Hudson, Lydiard, etc.) something struck me. In the midst of all the talk about base building, tapering, long runs, and tempos, there is hardly anything on the mental aspect of training. If you do a bit of searching online you will find that almost all of the top level athletes do some form of mental training. At the highest levels of distance running the physiological differences are minuscule and every competitor is looking for that thing that will separate them from the pack. For many, that thing is mental training. So if I am a recreational runner what use does it have for me? I am not competing against the world’s best or trying to pay my rent with racing. Even though you may not be feeding your family with your running, you may still have a burning desire to see what your capable of (I know I sure as hell do). To see what your potential really is when everything goes right. This is where mental training can provide you an advantage. By incorporating mental training into your arsenal, you can squeeze every last ounce of potential out of your training and your racing. If there is a PR you just cannot seem to break or your racing strategy falls apart once the gun goes off, mental training is the thing you need to put you over the edge.

The first element of mental training I am going to look at is visualization.

What is it?

Visualization, or “mental rehearsal” as it’s sometimes called is the act of practicing using only your mind. Some people prefer the term “mental imagery” as they feel that term better encompasses the multi sensory experience that encompasses this practice. As I read more and more about it I think mental rehearsal is a better term. Imagery and visualization are both eyesight centric terms and the visual is only a single aspect of what you do with mental rehearsal. Mental rehearsal is a way to train your body by using just your mind.

In mental rehearsal you don’t physically do the activity you just simulate it with mental images and other sensations. This technique is used quite extensively in the highest levels of athletic performance.  It is something that you can use to improve your training and racing results. The goal of visualization is to convince your mind (and your body) that you are actually doing the activity. You go over in your mind all the things that happen during your race. The closer you get to the feelings you will have during the activity the better. What does your breathing feel and sound like? What is the rhythm of your footfalls at race pace? Do you feel your glutes woking? What does the surface feel like under your feet? What will it feel like when you make a move in the last 3 miles? The more detailed you can make your mental experience the better it’s going to work.

Why does it work?

On a certain level your body does not know the difference between a good mental rehearsal and the real thing. In essence you get to train without the physical wear and tear on your body. This happens because as you mentally rehearse, the body believes that you are actually doing the work and it makes adaptations that will help you do this better. This happens on a neuromuscular level. As you mentally rehearse running, the same neural pathways used in running are activated; just not enough to actually contract the muscles. You may have heard of a study where basketball players mentally rehearsed free throws and actually improved more than the players that did physical practice. You can do the same thing with running. So if you spend 15 minutes at race pace in a mental rehearsal, the body adapts to this. Studies have shown that mental practice has a positive effect on physical muscle power. The key is doing it well and doing it often enough to make a difference in your training.Mental rehearsal is a great way to better prepare for races and hard workouts. Click To Tweet

How to do it

Before you try and integrate mental rehearsals into your training, I’d advise you to go on a few runs as research. On these research runs pay strict attention to how you feel. What does the air feel like on your face? Where are your arms swinging? Do you hear anything? What does your breathing feel like? After collecting these sensations you will be better able to mentally simulate them.

If you are just starting out with mental rehearsal as a runner, start small and work your way up. At first it may be difficult to maintain the focus needed for the length of time that you need to simulate an entire race. I’d say start out with a repeat or a short workout to rehearse in your mind. The more vivid and visceral you can make the rehearsal the better results you are going to get. Find a quiet place, close your eyes and imagine the road in front of you. Imagine what the target pace feels like. The pace (in terms of time) will be of no value to you here. Your body doesn’t understand 7:35 or a 90 second quarter. You need to feel it. That’s what your body will respond to. What is the sound your feet are making? What does the rhythm of your feet sound like? How does your arm swing feel? Is your thumb brushing against your shorts every time it goes by? What is the rhythm of that? What’s it sound like? If it’s a race, is there a crowd? What are they doing? Are you passing people? The most vital aspect of this is to replicate the feelings and sensations that you will have when you are actually running the effort. This is yet another reason to learn how to run by feel; it makes it easier to do effective mental rehearsals.

The more you do this the better your rehearsals will become and you will be able to focus for longer periods of time. You could probably do mental rehearsal for an entire 5k but I doubt you’d be able to focus for a full 10k or a longer race. For the longer races identify the key moments in the race and mentally rehearse those. Maybe how you’ll make it through mile 20 of a marathon or deal with a key hill in a half marathon. This practice can also be used to deal with race day anxiety. If the race is more familiar to and you have replayed it in your mind a few times before, there will be less anxiety and more excitement about competition. You will feel more ready to race and race well.

In summary:

  • Mental rehearsal is a great way to better prepare for races and hard workouts.
  • Learning to recognize and reproduce the sensations that you feel while running well is key to good mental rehearsals
  • Start small. Try it for a few minutes when you first wake up or just before going to bed to get started. As you get better start using it for key workouts and then move on to races.

I will be incorporating this into my current marathon training cycle and see how it goes. (Maybe this time I can finally start slow and not blow up with cramps half way through!) If you give this a try, drop me a line and let me know how this works for you.

Enjoy the Run.

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