This post originally ran on February 27, 2012.
It might have been my best race ever.
I went to the race alone and got there in plenty of time to register and head back to my car before my warm-up. Coach instructed me to use the 5k race as part of my training run which was to run 11 miles at 7:00 pace. I stripped off my warm-ups and headed out for a brisker than normal warm-up along the loop course that I remembered from running the race several years earlier. I noticed the familiar slight undulation and location of the turns along the course. As I went along I started feeling pretty amped up and confident this was going to be a good one for me.
I made it back to my car to change into my flats and pin on my number. I headed over to the start area and did some strides before lining up at the front since it was a smallish local race. I was nervous, but I calmed myself by focusing on little things like the bright green blades of grass or the colors and shape of the other runners racing flats. When the gun went off I strode away feeling light and free and faaaaast.
And without much effort at all I hit the first mile in 5:50, faster than I had ever run a first mile of a 5k before. My stride remained fluid and I had no problem at all maintaining a sub-6:00 for the second mile despite a more boring isolated stretch of the course. As I began my last mile I checked in, “self, what do you have left?” A lot I decided and I picked it up a little and a little and as I entered the parking lot near the finish line I knew I was on pace for a huge p.r. and I hammered. When I made the last turn and saw the clock it said 17:59 and I watched it tick down the seconds until I crossed in 18:14–a 35 second p.r.!
Why is that in italics? Because that all happened in my imagination. What really happened was I ran an 18:15 on a slightly different out and back course (course was changed since I last ran the race) with a 5:52 first mile, but everything else happened exactly as I imagined the night before the race. That my friends is the power of visualization.
When we visualize something we stimulate the same brain regions that we stimulate when we actually do the same action. How cool is that? When we visualize running a relaxed p.r. we actually train our brain to run a relaxed p.r. That’s critical when you have a brain like mine that often likes to undermine your performances. By visualizing performing a relaxed p.r. race before that great 5k I told my brain that relaxed and focused is normal rather than the constant loop of negative thoughts and anxiety that my brain was accustomed to performing during races.
Visualization is more than just a mental dress rehearsal, although that may be it’s most powerful use for us as runners. It can be used to help aid in relaxation, overcoming injury and so much more. It’s an essential tool in your mental training arsenal.
Like any skill, visualization takes practice. It will take most people several weeks of practice before being able to visualize an entire race morning. It will likely take several tries at a visualization exercise before being able to complete it without your mind wandering or becoming distracted. Below is an exercise to get you started.
Simple Visualization Exercise for Runners
1. Perform a relaxation exercise and achieve a nice relaxed state.
2. Picture standing at the start of a familiar route. See all the sights and hear the sounds of that place. Picture as many details as you can.
3. Picture yourself starting your watch and starting to run.
4. Feel the road or trail under your feet. Hear your easy breath and the wind on your cheeks. Picture yourself feeling better on the run than you ever have before.
5. Now picture yourself returning to the start with the run finished. Picture yourself feeling refreshed, destressed and so appreciative for the gift of fitness.
6. The exercise is over. Practice it each day until you are able to get through the entire exercise without becoming distracted.
Do you tend to race tense or have you mastered the art of running fast, yet relaxed? Do you have a trick for relaxing before a race you’d like to share?