How Visualizing the Achievement of Your Running Goals Might Set You up to Fail

Racing a course that plays to your strengths can result in big surprises and big PRs!
If your goal is to break 2:50 don’t picture this! (Photo of the beautiful Pepper at the 2010 Columbus Marathon!)

We all know that one of the most valuable tools in our mental training arsenal is visualization, the mental exercise of picturing ourselves succeeding. Visualize pushing through those final miles to your PR marathon to nab that PR. Visualize that OTQ time on the finishing clock with your arms raised in triumph to nab that OTQ. Visualize the top spot on the podium if you want to win. If we visualize ourselves succeeding we’re one step closer to achieving our big goals.

Or are we?ย 

No! Recentย research in psychology suggests the opposite is true. When we visualize ourselves achieving our goals we actually demotivate ourselves to achieve them. Visualizing success triggers similar relaxation physiological responses as if we actually achieved the goal which saps us of our energy and drive to go for it.

This is true even if we need to achieve the goal. The researchers discovered that dehydrated research subjects became less motivated to find water after they visualized themselves drinking a glass of ice water! In addition, the researchers tracked visualizers and nonvisualizers for a week and the visualizers achieved less and felt far less energetic than the nonvisualizers.

So should we quit visualizing? No, we should just do it in a more critical way. Instead of visualizing achieving goals, we should visualize ourselves actively engaged in the race (and prerace) and realistic obstacles we might face on our path to goal achievement and what we would do to overcome them. For example, in a marathon situation we might visualize ourselves having to hit the restroom or missing a water stop and how we would handle those situations. Based on this research it appears we run into trouble when we picture ourselves succeeding and reveling in that success without actually doing it.

Lastly, there is one time when visualizing success might help you achieve your goals – to combat anxiety. If you’re standing on the starting line and feeling anxious, visualizing achieving your goal should relax you. So save visualizing your goal time on the finishing clock for the starting line.

What do you think? Does this research bear out in your experience?ย 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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6 comments

  1. I don’t know about this– there are many successful athletes who use visualization. Unfortunately I can’t read the paper but I don’t think years of experience from successful athletes and sports psychologists should be thrown out because of one study. I’ll keep visualizing (and working hard).

    1. I agree that visualization is critical to success, but we need to visualize the process and not just the result (if not the result at all). I’m sure you don’t simply visualize crossing the finish line with your goal time on the clock, right? You probably visualize pre-race, the starting line, and you kicking butt in the race itself. That’s all great. It’s just visualizing success that can be a problem. (I edited the post to hopefully clarify that point – thanks!)

      That being said, I wonder of visualizing achievement of a goal might help those with confidence issues which might offset the demotivation potential?

      1. I use both. My last successful race, I started with writing down the goal as if I’d already achieved it (“I have run a sub-4hr marathon”). I pictured the finish line, the clock, and tried to feel the elation that I would feel at achieving a big goal. During the training process, when workouts got tough (or if I just didn’t feel like doing them) I pictured the finish line clock rolling over to 4:00 right in front of me, because I had slacked off during a tough workout. During runs on the marathon course during training, I pictured the differences on marathon day (the other runners, the spectators, the roads free of cars, the noise all around, the pavement sticky from the gatorade) and imagined myself feeling as fresh and energetic as I was on that day in training (when I had run 5 miles and not 21). I often pictured going up some of the major hills in the course effortlessly, passing people who were struggling.

        I believe that all of this helped me to ultimately achieve my goal, on a day with a headwind that caused some people to miss theirs.
        (note that I know a 4:00 marathon isn’t particularly fast by any objective measure, but it was a big improvement from my first, which was just barely under 5:00).

        I don’t have access to academic journals but I would bet that there are more than a few studies that suggest that visualization (even of success, not of progress) can be helpful for some athletes. There’s probably a lot of variation between individual athletes, though. Some will be motivated, and some demotivated, by visualizing achieving their goals.

        1. I have had similar success with visualization, but I definitely feel that if I focus too much on visualizing the end result over the process I get a “wa. Wa.” feeling (hope thay translated over the web!) like woop de doo. I think this effect happens when people focus their visualizing on the end result rather than the process, which it definitely doesn’t sound like you did. There have been similar studies of people who visualized eating something and how they would feel after and it reduced their craving for the food. I think it’s a similar phenonomemon. When we allow ourselves to really feel the feelings of success through visualization we risk taking away our hunger for achievement, but again I think that risk is mitigated when the finish line visualization is part of a much bigger visualization exercise more broadly focused on the process. Does that make sense?

          I think I could have done a better job of articulating the nuance in the post, so I really appreciate the opportunity to explain it better!

  2. I agree that visualizing success with the process, rather than the result, is key – it’s kind of similar to positive self-talk. There are so many quick, almost sub-conscious decisions that happen in a race situation so I think practicing during workouts and training is useful so you aren’t flying blind when it counts. Plus, I think visualizing success with shorter-term, achievable goals that can be attained during the process, rather than just focusing on the big long-term end-result goal, helps a lot with motivation and the feeling you are accomplishing good things with your running.