I ran the Olympic Trials marathon course dozens of times before I ever made it to LA. The repetitive loops, the water stop navigation, the turns through the University of Southern California, the elation of the finish. I ran it all in my mind—never having taken a step on the streets. On race day, my mind was as prepared to handle the grueling 26.2 miles as my legs.
Visualization is a powerful tool for athletes. When we visualize performing an action, it activates the same brain areas we use when we actually perform that action. Visualizing a race primes your mental muscle the way speedy intervals condition your legs and lungs. By mentally rehearsing running relaxed and smooth in a goal race, you get your brain used to that state of things, so you’re ready to run relaxed and smooth on race day.
Want to use visualization to help nail your next goal race? Here are a few ways to add it to your running game.
Dedicate some time to it. I find it fits in well during the taper; I replace some of the time normally spent running with a few minutes of visualization. Find a quiet place, get comfortable, and try to relax.
Rehearse the entire race. I start with the moments leading up to the race: getting to the starting area, not freaking out over the length of the Port-a-Potty lines, staying calm and relaxed on my warm up. Then I go through the whole race, mile by mile or section by section, trying to be as detailed as possible. Watch the course video beforehand if one is available. If not, study the course map and picture yourself running along it, following the twists and turns. Include major hills, terrain changes, water stops, and cheer zones. And yes, picture that finish and the joy you’ll feel knowing you gave it your all.
Stay positive but realistic. It won’t be all sunshine and rainbows for the entire race. Picture certain things going wrong (it’s hot, it’s raining, you have to go to the bathroom) and how to handle them. I imagine having a slower than expected mile and calmly moving past it to focus on running well for the next mile. The key is to anticipate the inevitable pain and possible mishaps, and then practice accepting them and not letting them derail your entire race.
Rehearse the mental techniques you’ll rely on during the race. Whether it is a certain mantra or inspirational people to think about, practice the things you’ll tell yourself to keep you going. I try to anticipate where it might be tough (the later miles of the marathon, a hilly stretch, a section with little crowd support) and picture myself staying strong regardless. For example, a mental preparation for Heartbreak Hill might be: You’re going to feel like you can’t make it and will want to give up. But remember this is what you’ve trained for, all those hill repeats are about to pay off. Stay tough, get up and over this, then it’s all downhill and onto the crazy cheers of Beacon Street.
Repeat. Do this a couple times before the race; I generally do it every morning of race week. It should become ingrained in your mind, like the miles are ingrained in your legs. On race day, you might find you’re more relaxed: you know what to expect and how to handle it. Then just go through the routine you’ve practiced, stay strong in those tough spots, and celebrate your finish.