For experienced and novice runners alike, there are many persistent mental challenges to negotiate when running a marathon. For instance, the mind chatter you go through days before the race that questions how well you have prepared, the doubts that creep in with 10 kilometres to go, and trying to remain calm when negotiating those unexpected events like bad weather during your race.

What if there was a way to better prepare yourself to manage these moments emotionally? What if there was a skill or strategy that can lead to improved times, or enhance your experience of the marathon no matter what is thrown at you? Well there is! In this article I will introduce the mental skill of visualisation, how to use it effectively, and how it can be your most powerful tool in your preparation kit for race day.

Visualisation as mental rehearsal
Most athletes including marathon runners typically devote the majority of their time and attention to their physical preparation before a big race and tend to overlook their mental game for race day. Including visualisation in your preparation plan can elevate the feeling of confidence and control you create from sound physical preparation. Whilst pace work and race day simulation training are a form of physical rehearsal for the event, you can use visualisation as a form of mental rehearsal for the race. When you see yourself running the race, as if through the lens of camera, taking strong strides forward with good technical form, working hard but appearing calm, you are creating images of success, which over time will aid a feeling of readiness to take charge on race day. Seeing is believing after all!

Visualisation to face your fears
When working with distance runners I find that most of their anxiety and worry before a big event comes from avoiding their biggest fear or weaknesses in a race. I often use guided visualisation with these athletes to help them confront these fears head on. For instance, visualising the onset of exertion pain during a critical moment in a race and feeling the experience of it in the muscles can be confronting for an athlete. However, when you couple this imagined experience with positive self-talk about remaining calm, accepting the feeling, and reinterpreting the exertion pain in positive ways this can an empowering preparatory exercise. If you have fears or weaknesses that are making you anxious and tense before the upcoming marathon, don’t avoid it or distract yourself. Instead, visualise yourself responding to your ‘worse-case scenarios’ in positive rational ways, and will begin to feel empowered to take control if they do happen on race day. You will be less likely to panic when an obstacle is placed in front of you, and more likely to enjoy the race and the many challenges along the course.

Top tips for practicing visualisation

  1. Choose a consistent time and place each day to mentally rehearse your race.
  2. Find a quiet space for visualisation, away from any distractions. You can engage in visualisation and relaxation at the same time as a way to enhance your recovery practices.
  3. If you are new to visualisation practice and you get distracted easily, write a script that someone else can use to guide you. In time, you will learn to focus better during visualisation and you will be able to practice on your own.
  4. Consistent practice is paramount: Begin your visualisation practice at least one month prior to your event. It will not be as effective if you only start using this technique the day or night before your race.

Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment to help you learn how to use visualisation at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre.