Can Harnessing Mental Imagery Help on Race Day?

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Gain a competitive edge by incorporating the use of mental imagery into your training regimen. Can Harnessing Mental Imagery Help on Race Day?

Every athlete and coach knows that being in the right frame of mind for competition and even practice is an important part of the training. And although it is common knowledge, incorporating any kind of mental preparedness is not a widespread part of team athletic training. Often, it is up to the athlete him or herself to establish a method to gain the mental edge.

One way to do that is through active mental imagery, a habit that I used when I was competing in college and something I still try to use in my daily life. Unfortunately, for me, I can’t seem to put it into practice for housework as easily as I could for running.

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What exactly is mental imagery?

Although there are many different ways to describe it—visualizing, seeing in the mind’s eye, imagining the feeling, hearing in the head—mental imagery is defined as “a picture of an object not present produced in the mind through memory or imagination.”

Mental images are described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sometimes as “echoes, copies or reconstructions of actual perceptual experiences of the past,” or sometimes as “possible desired or feared future experiences.”

Mental imagery (MI) techniques have been utilized in athletics, physical rehabilitation, relaxation and stress, and anxiety management.

In athletics, MI is most commonly used to enhance and better performance. In physical rehabilitation, MI techniques can help patients deal with pain, facilitate the recovery process, slow physical atrophy due to immobility and injury and help patients stick to an optimum physical rehabilitation schedule. MI techniques help to decrease or alleviate stress and anxiety and improve relaxation level.

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Putting mental imagery to use: my own experience

My college cross country coach stopped me in the hall of the gym one day during my senior season. “Range,” (my team nickname) he said, “Right now you are running either number one or number two in the country.” How he knew that I’m not sure since it was in the days before the internet, or And cross country times are difficult to compare as the courses vary in topography and sometimes, although slight, in distance.

And I would never find out if he was right as a case of bronchitis the week of Division III Nationals ended my season on a sour note. But that is a blog post for another day.

I was having a successful season up to that point and I credit it to not only my regular training but also to weekly yoga sessions and a routine mental imagery technique.

Every race day, our team jogged the 5K course as a warm-up, raced the course, and then jogged the course again as a cool-down. Many of these races were on the same courses year after year with maybe only minor variations. Multiply this by three previous years of running the same courses and by my senior year, I knew most of the courses fairly well.

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The night before each meet, I would “run” the courses in my head—visualizing the start, where I wanted to be after the first 100 meters or so, then continuing on through the course, noting spots where it was advantageous to make a move, uphills, downhills, water crossings, wooded areas, changes in the surface from grass to gravel to pavement, and finally the finish, which always included me crossing the line in first.

This was not a formal part of our practice or anything that I had been instructed to do. I did it on my own based on either hearing or reading about the work of Australian psychologist Alan Richardson.

Richardson tested basketball players’ ability to shoot free throws. He divided the players into three groups. One group practiced shooting free throws for 20 minutes per day. The second group visualized themselves shooting free throws but didn’t do any actual practicing. The third group neither visualized nor actually practiced shooting free throws.

The results of the study, which were published in Research Quarterly in 1961, were unexpected. The group that practiced free throws on a daily basis improved by 24%. The group that neither practiced nor visualized shooting free throws, not surprisingly, didn’t improve at all. The group that visualized shooting free throws astonishingly improved by 23%, only one point shy of the group that practiced every day!

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How to incorporate mental imagery into your training

One of the most important things to remember when adding MI techniques to your training is that you need to do it consistently. Just like regular training, MI training is not a one-off kind of thing. You will get more benefit from it if you do it on a regular basis.

Although you can wing it as I did, you might get more out of it if you follow some guidelines to help you get the most out of your MI sessions. Three to four sessions each week, lasting approximately 10 minutes each is a good general guideline.

Consider using the following tips from Dr. Tim Taylor, a former competitive skier, professor at the University of San Francisco and the author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Sports Goals.

According to Taylor, four features influence the quality of mental imagery—perspective, control, multiple sense, and speed.

Perspective is how you “view” your mental imagery…either from inside your body looking out or outside your body looking in. You may find that one method suits your purposes better than the other. Use the one you are most comfortable with.

Take control of the image. For instance, if in your image you make a mistake, a series of mistakes or continually make the same mistake, “rewind” the image and use the opportunity to correct the mistake so that in your image, you are always doing the skill correctly.

Taylor recommends not limiting the imagery to the only visualization. He encourages athletes to include not just sights, but the sounds, smells, thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are part of the sport. Utilizing all the senses and your emotions will better reflect the realities of the sport rather than visualization alone.

Speed also is an important aspect of beneficial mental imagery. The ability to slow down imagery, particularly if your sport includes the mastery of one or more techniques can greatly enhance the quality of your MI session. Viewing an image in slow motion can allow you to better see mistakes and allow you to “rewind” the image in order to correct a mistake or tweak your technique. When the technique is mastered, you can speed up the image to normal speed.

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Taylor also suggests that athletes set goals for what they want to work on using mental imagery and to start with the simplest practices in the simplest settings. As each level is mastered, an athlete can ramp up the imagery to more difficult practice conditions and then move on to easy competitions up through the most challenging competitions he/she will face.

In addition, keeping a written record of your MI sessions can give you a way to track each session—what you visualized, heard, and felt, any problems that arose during the session and a plan for the next session.

By flexing your mental muscle using imagery, you may find that the goal you believed was just out of reach may become clearer and more defined and well within your grasp.


  1. Nigel J.T. Thomas , Mental Imagery, website
  2. Keith Randolph, Sports Visualizations, website
  3. Dr. Tim Taylor, Sports Imagery: Athletes’ Most Powerful Mental Tool, website