How to Guide: Visualization for Runners

Being back at the Raleigh Relays, a meet I cherished when I was in college, brought back lots of warm memories. I always loved this event, and it gave me a great opportunity to see not only how fast time has flown by, but how far I have come.

It put me back into my college running days, to the mind of a collegiate athlete.

This is the time I really learned most of my mental running tips, grit and mental toughness. I fought hard for what I wanted, and made the most of the opportunities like this to get what I wanted (even after a 14 hour van drive down to NC from Michigan!).

In one of my Facebook live video chats I have done (have you joined me yet?), I shared my favorite mental aspect of running, the method that I used time and time again in college, barely able to believe how well it actually works; visualization.

As many of you are closing in on the Boston Marathon and the London Marathon (as well as many other races around the world), I thought it would be a good time to share the best way to mentally prepare for a marathon, or any other race for that matter, to really get what you want.

I recommend also watching the video of me talking about it, as it is much more powerful that way (and then join me for a future chat!), but I thought I would describe how to use visualization and provide a little cheat sheet to keep for future.

So how do you know if visualization is for you? If any of these are in your head:

  • Experiencing self-doubt
  • I’m very mentally weak
  • I have a fear that I’ll go out too quickly and won’t be able to finish
  • I don’t know how to embrace the pain that comes with pushing myself to go faster
  • I want to know how to build mental toughness for running

Pretty much sums up most of us, right? If it doesn’t then kudos to you my friend, maybe you should consider a career as a sports psychologist 😉

Every runner can benefit from visualization, and not just for running either, this can be used in almost every area of your life, really.

Want a promotion? Want a dream vacation? Want to start a family?

Visualize it.

But here’s the catch; you HAVE to believe you can do it. Deep in your heart.

Having self-doubt is one thing. We ALL have self-doubt and moments we think that there is no way we are ever going to accomplish this big scary goal, BUT if you truly believe that you can do this, and you will do whatever it takes to get there, you can have it.

You also might have to let go of a specific time frame.

I know, not what you want to hear when your race is just a few weeks away.

Why would I put all the effort into this mental training if there’s a chance I might not even manage it.

Well, because someway, somehow you will get there.

Maybe at a different time, maybe a slightly different spin, maybe in a different way, but it will happen.

The best part?

If it doesn’t happen right away or in the way that you expected, you will learn SO much about yourself in the process, you will be glad it happened this way.

After all, running is about the journey, the process, right?

I have told you time and time again, we as runners, do not want to get sucked into thinking that our self-worth, our identity is tied to a result, as it really isn’t.

Be Brave. Be Strong. Be YOU. Remember?

Okay, so enough ramble for one day.

Get to the point, Tina.

How do you visualize for running?

This is something that will take practice. The first few times you try it, it will feel awkward and uncomfortable. The details will be unclear, and you will wonder if it will even work at all.

How could it possibly work when I can’t even see what I am doing?

The first step is to choose your goal. Think about what it would feel like to accomplish that goal. Find a goal that will make you so happy, that tears will come to your eyes. A goal that will make you say “OH MY GOD I DID IT!”.

So pretty big.

If you want to make it a lifetime goal, your ultimate running goal, (I accomplished mine exactly one year ago yesterday!), this will be something that will take years. The visualization process for you will be less intense, and I would NOT recommend doing it every day, because that means one of two things:

  • You will burn out, and never make it there, mentally exhausted
  • You will accomplish it within a few months, in which case, my friend, that goal is NOT big enough for you

I digress.

Once you have chosen your goal, for a race that is 3-6 weeks away, pick a time that you can have some alone time to meditate/think without interruptions.

I would recommend the first thing in the morning when you wake up (before you leave bed) or last thing at night (before you fall asleep).

Close your eyes.

In your mind’s eye, start to see all the parts of the race morning. Using as many details as you can, see yourself going through that morning.

I recommend going through the following sections:

  • Waking up with a smile, knowing today is race day, and although nervous, you are excited
  • Eating your pre race meal, stomach has butterflies, but you get enough down to feel confident
  • Going to the bathroom before you leave the house/hotel, take a deep breath knowing at least that is out the way (although if you know your body, you may need to go more than once, in which case, add that in this routine)
  • Arriving at the course (in plenty of time), and relaxing for a few moments
  • Warming up, feeling a little sluggish, but that is expected
  • Standing on the start line, using your power pose as you look out onto the course #R4RPowerPose
  • Starting the race, smiling to yourself that it is time to go
  • Pick 5-6 moments along the race course, and imagine going past those, smiling to yourself that you are there doing it (these can be family members standing there, monuments, or just mile markers)
  • Think about a tough moment, a moment where you are really struggling, the voices in your head are loud, but then see yourself getting through it, and thinking “Okay, that’s over, good job, you made it through that part, I feel good again now”
  • See yourself come around the corner to see the finish, feel that ginormous smile on your face as you realize how fast you have run (because hopefully you have run this race using the effort scale and without looking at your GPS watch!!!!)
  • Embracing family and friends or receiving awards on the stage
  • Walking back to the car/train/hotel feeling stiff and sore, but smiling cause it was worth it

As many details as you can with this process, the better.

What do you see? Smell? Hear? Taste (post race meal can be part of this process, and thinking that you earned it!)? Feel?

The first few times you do this, you will probably struggle with the details, it will feel a little awkward and forced, but if you continue to do this every day, you will notice that each day, more and more is added to the process.

Now, this part is important:

When I talked about the finish line, this needs to be the most detailed part. You need to actually do what you would on race day. Okay, so maybe you won’t feel tears come to your eyes…although I usually do at least a few times during this process, but if you raise your hands in celebration, actually do it, yes, right there in your bed (maybe warn your partner first!), or if you have a symbol you use, do that.

Side note, maybe we could have 4 fingers in the air be the #running4real finish line post?! If you do this in your next race, PLEASE send me a picture!

The finish line area and embracing your family/friends/reading messages of congratulations needs to be the most vivid part of the entire thing, as this is what you will remind yourself of during the tough parts of the race, just how good that is going to feel.

I promise you my friends, if you pick something you truly believe you can do, you do this every day, and you really commit to it, it WILL work for you, and it will blow your mind!

So give it a try for your next race. If you are racing Boston or London, this is the perfect time to start this.

I know I threw a lot of information at you, so I have made it nice and easy, by creating a cheat sheet for you to fill out for this process to make sure you get all the details to the front of your mind. I added a few extra steps to make it a bit easier, so make sure you print this out for your next race.

Visualization. If you have used it and had success with it, share below, let others know just how powerful it can be.

Still a little unsure of how to work visualization into your training? I happen to have a Mile 20: Mental Training Course with an entire module dedicated to working visualization into your training.

Your Visualization Worksheet

Download this free worksheet to help you get all the details you need to visualize correctly

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  • I can use this. Being diagnosed and dealing with RA has completely thrown off my mojo. I start training for Grandmas marathon this week and it’s hard to set goals, etc, not knowing what this disease is going to do. Praying for remission, preparing for whatever gets thrown my way.

  • For me it’s a shame you rely on Facebook to the extent you do. I’m not on Facebook and I won’t go there (and it’s nothing to do with being a Luddite – I’m actually a software dev in my day job). Otherwise, great article and one I hope might help me in the Paris marathon in two weeks, for which (thanks to a lot of injuries this year) I am woefully unprepared.

  • I can certainly use some of these tips! I am constantly questioning myself in the most ridiculous ways

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