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Elite Athletes Visualize Their Obstacles to Push Past Them

"I decided to go all in and immerse myself in the belief that I can run my fastest mile.”

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Jan 25 2018, 4:43pm

Seth Macey/Unsplash

If you do something enough, eventually you start to memorize parts of it, maybe even all of it. For most people, that is often the case with listening to a song, watching a movie or typing the three-digit code on the back of your credit card to buy something online.

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For me, it’s watching the video of Hicham El Guerrouj break the world record for running the fastest mile ever recorded, which he did on July 7, 1999 at a competition in Rome. I've watched this video so many times that I've memorized lines of commentary from the broadcasters.

“This is the lap which most people let down in slightly to get ready for the final 400 meters,” one commentator says, as if he were coaching El Guerrouj himself. “They must not do this if they want to take away Noureddine Morceli’s world record.” Indeed, El Guerrouj did not slow his pace in the third lap, and went on to beat Morceli’s record with a time of 3 minutes 43.13 seconds.

I ran track in high school. Although I was never good enough to win any races, I was still pretty fast. My best mile ever—5 minutes 21 seconds—came at a practice on a sunny afternoon during my senior year. Since then, I've graduated from high school, then college, entered the 9-to-5 workforce, and put on a few pounds. My mile times have never been the same, and by that I mean my mile times have basically doubled.

Over the past couple of years, I've completed a few half marathons and a couple of marathons, which have helped improve my mile times some, although nowhere near what I did in high school. But I've always wondered whether I’m capable of getting anywhere close to that sub-6 minute mile, and whether there was some shortcut that could help me get here.

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As I started thinking about whether I could really do it again, something that frequently popped up in my search for shortcuts was sports visualization—synonymous with terms such as sports imagery, brain training, mental training and guided imagery. It’s difficult to pin exactly when visualization was discovered, because people have done it since the beginning of time; all they had to do was close their eyes and imagine themselves doing something. But over the years, numerous studies have tested a very simple question: If you can imagine it, can you achieve it? I wanted to test the theory for myself. If I visualized running my fastest mile ever, could I do it? Visualization wouldn’t be enough, so I picked a training plan and started believing.

Although other athletes such as Billie Jean King and Al Oerter are reported to have used sports visualization since the 1960s, the Russians are often credited for being the first to apply visualization theories to sports performance. After the 1984 Olympics, Russian researchers discovered that athletes could use visualization techniques to improve their performance. Since then several studies have proven the same idea. A 2007 study in the North American Journal of Psychology found that by simply mentally imagining a hip-flexor workout, athletes made strength gains comparable to those who really did the workouts. A 2014 study in the Journal of Neurophysiology also suggests that just thinking about gaining muscle may help you get stronger.

In recent years, sports visualization has become more popularly recognized and used to gain any sort of edge. It takes lots of forms: Many professional athletes will play video games of their respective sports to help them visualize playing, such has Madden NFL or FIFA. While training for the 2014 Winter Olympics, Canadian bobsledder Lyndon Rush used mental simulation to envision going down the track, according to the New York Times.

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There aren’t any popular video games for running, but as I begin my training, I start imagining what it will look like and what it will feel like running my fastest mile ever. I start to think about things like how hard I will grit my teeth as I entered the final 200-meter stretch, how much I will sweat and what I will feel like when I’m finally done and I look to check my time. Will I be exhausted? Elated? A delirious mix of both? I start envisioning my fastest mile constantly—before running, while running, after running, at the gym doing weight exercises to improve my running.


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Of course, I want to do more than just think about running. I need to see what running a fast mile looked like, so every day, at least once a day, I watch video of El Guerrouj setting the record for the fastest mile ever—that’s when I started memorizing it. On note cards and sticky notes, I write messages like: “You will run your fastest mile,” “You can do this,” and “COMMIT.”

Does this feel contrived? At times, yes. But if I really want to run my fastest mile, not only do I need to train as hard as I can—meaning two-a-days with 6 am runs and weights at the gym after work—I also need to believe as much as I can. I decided to go all in, immersing myself in the belief that I can run my fastest mile.

When I wasn’t running, lifting weights, or thinking about running, I read about running. I read Once a Runner, a cult classic by John L. Parker Jr., about a character named Quenton Cassidy with hopes to break the world record for the fastest mile. I read Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. I also read a new book, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson, a two-time finalist in the 1,500 meters at the Canadian Olympic trials who also competed internationally in track, cross country, road racing, and mountain running.

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In his book, Hutchinson, who also holds a PhD in physics from Cambridge, examines the roles the mind and body play performance, especially in the endeavors of endurance athletes. I want to know more about the effects belief has on performance. “Is it the mind or is it the body?” Hutchinson asks rhetorically. “You need both.”

Hutchinson says that when he ran in college, his coaches asked him and his teammates to try visualization. He admits that, while it felt hokey at first, eventually he was visualizing his races and reading a chapter of Once a Runner every night. Visualization is important, he says, “because ultimately your mind is overtaking what your body is trying to do," which is slow down.

But envisioning success isn’t enough, he adds. “You need to visualize the hard parts.”
Hutchinson suggests that after a run, I write down whatever thoughts I had—positive and negative. “Reinforce the ones that are positive,” he suggests. “For the ones that are negative, try and think of some alternatives. Whatever the negative thoughts are, find ways to reframe it.”

As I continue my training, not only do I visualize crossing the finish line, I start to visualize how I’ll feel during the third lap. I think about how fatigued I might be, but also what I’ll say to myself to not slow down.

At the beginning of my training, I ran a one-mile timed trial on a track at a nearby junior high school. My time was 8 minutes, 40 seconds. A few days later, I ran another in 8 minutes, 6 seconds—that was my time to beat.

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On the morning of my final timed trial, I spend more time than usual stretching and warming up. With every stretch I imagine what I’ll feel like pushing through the final 800 meters and how hard I’ll stomp on the ground in the final 100 meters.

I start my run at a brisk pace. Knowing I won’t have to run more than one mile today, I want to put all of my effort and energy into this mile.

As I settle into my pace, I know I’m running much faster than usual, but it doesn’t feel labored. Instead I feel like I’m gliding—like a disobedient kid in a mattress store hopping from one queen-size innerspring to the next.

At the halfway point, I’m tempted to slow down. I know maintaining this pace will only get harder, but I refuse to decelerate. Every time temptations to slow down pop into my head, I remind myself of how hard I worked for this. I tell myself to stop thinking about the full distance and to focus only on the next 100 meters. And I remind myself that I can do this.

With less than 250 meters to go, I quicken my pace until I’m in a full sprint. I want to be depleted of my energy when I finish. As I get closer and closer to the finish line, I imagine how El Guerrouj felt in the final stretch of his historic mile. Then I imagine myself as El Guerrouj, his legs a blur as he speeds to the finish.

For the final meter, I close my eyes and throw my hands up the way Olympians do when the finish line ribbon wraps around their bodies. There’s no ribbon awaiting me, but something better. I pull my phone out of my pocket to check my time. The time on my phone reads “6:45.”

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Did the visualization work? It’s hard, if not impossible, to quantify what percentage of running a faster mile came from training and how much came from believing that I could. But one thing is for certain: If I didn’t believe that I could run faster, I wouldn’t have attempted this in the first place. On the morning of final timed trial, I thought I would run a mile in the neighborhood of 7 minutes, 40 seconds—a one-minute improvement over my first time trail. But I never imagined I would improve by almost two minutes. It still wasn’t close to my 5:21 mile in high school, but this made me wonder what other goals I’m struggling to achieve simply because I don’t believe enough.

In ENDURE, Hutchinson writes, “Training is the cake and belief is the icing—but sometimes that thin smear of frosting makes all the difference.” If I want to accomplish other goals through the power of visualization, I’ll need more than just visualization to get there, but a little frosting is never a bad thing.

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