Visualize Your Way to Success

imageI 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.

Teal Burrell running during the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon
When the heat took its toll, visualizing techniques made me better prepared to handle it.

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.

Do you practice visualization techniques?

I'm a science journalist with a background in neuroscience and a love of running marathons and baking marathon-worthy feasts. I started out as an over four-hour marathoner but whittled my PR down to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. I write about the importance of chasing big dreams and -- as I'm currently pregnant with my first -- getting ready to chase around a little one.

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  1. I love that you mentioned visualizing the pre-race stuff. It’s important to get to the starting line in good shape – relaxed and ready to race, not frazzled and exhausted.

    I plan out all that stuff – parking, shuttles, warm-up, port-o-johns (and alternatives!), gear check, etc. Figure out timing. And, mentally rehearse it – just as you described.
    Makes race morning MUCH more enjoyable (friendly runner vs. crabby runner). And, because I’m not in an overly high adrenaline state at the start, I’m able to go out at a relaxed, conservative pace instead of like a scalded cat.

  2. I watched videos on YouTube of the Boston course last year before racing. By the time I made it to the starting line, I felt confident that I knew what to expect–especially helpful with all those hills! During the race I had the most fun deja-vous, thinking to myself many times, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this part!’.

    Visualization is a great tool that I employ before every race and I’d love to read more from you, Tea, on other aspects of mental training. I’ve got a big goal race in May and after missing the mark on a couple of workouts, I’m in a rut of self-doubt. Now I’m starting to psych myself out before tackling hard workouts. Do you or any of the other Salties experience this?

    1. Ugh, self-doubt is a constant battle!! I’ve definitely struggled with it A LOT. My strategy is No Negative Self Talk, which basically means I try to shut down/bat away any negative thinking before or mid-workout or race. No “It will be too hard” or “I won’t be able to keep up the pace.” Try to stay positive: “It will be tough but I’m tougher” or focus on something else. It’s obviously WAY easier said than done, but I really think it helps. I wrote about this on my blog a while back ( but maybe it’s due for an update 😉

      Another thing I’ve found that helps for workouts is to find a new route–one that doesn’t have memories of workouts that didn’t go well. I started running tempo runs on a new route and it led to a breakthrough for me. Seems silly but it worked!

      1. Thanks for that extra input. My non-runner hubby suggested I find some new routes. It’s hard to do when you’re in marathon training, running hundreds of miles every month. I think I’m going to have to drive to another town. I’m willing to try that, especially if there’s chance of a breakthrough.

  3. I love this post. I’ll be running my first full marathon this fall and I know that mental preparation is going to be just as important for me as my actual training itself.

  4. Visualization is so underrated! I think I recall reading about a study of piano players, some of whom practiced as usual and some who practiced only mentally and still showed gains (maybe even equal to the “real” practice group?).

    I want to be more disciplined about using visualization as a training technique. For now, what I usually do for a goal race is print the course map. I like to associate specific locations on the course with cue words/phrases. It’s even better if it’s a familiar course or if there’s a course video.

    I also use visualization when I have aches or soreness. In bed I’ll visualize a healing massage or muscles rebuilding themselves. It’s also pretty relaxing!

  5. Great post, Tea! I had a big breakthrough in the 5k after visualizing the race. I visualized the whole thing before showing up from getting out of bed through cooling down and then visualized it as I warmed-up on the course. I totally worked! One thing I found though, is that I can’t visualize too much or I reinforce anxious feelings. It seemed best for me to do it very thoroughly one time before within a few days of the race and then a little refresher on race morning. More than that and I just overthought and felt anxious more than usual!

    1. Great point, Salty! I bet how much to do varies for everyone. I’m actually the opposite, the first time I visualize a race I get super anxious, but the more I do it and sort of hash it all out, the more calm I feel.

      1. Interesting! I’m sure we all have a sweet spot, but it just takes a little trial and error (or in my case, many many many errors) to find it! 🙂

  6. I love this, Tea! I am also a visualizer, but I need to practice more. I often find myself obsessing over every detail of an upcoming race. I should channel that energy into visualization and more meditation! I also think this practice keeps me focused on why I run and the confidence and strength that running gives me.

  7. I love it when I go to race expos and they have a super fast time lapse video preview of the course. Or sometimes you can see clips on their website. So helpful, especially if it’s an unfamiliar city.