“Sometimes when I run and there’s long grass beside the path, I high-five the grass like it’s the spectators in the finish chute, visualising having an awesome race and winning Kona. I also visualise giving a winner’s speech, thanking all the people that made a difference and helped me get there.”
The words of 2012 Ironman Hawaii champion Pete Jacobs on his application of the psychological training technique known as visualisation. Jacobs, like many pro triathletes, uses visualisation (or mental imagery) as part of their training, but what exactly is it and how can it help you, the recreational triathlete?
“Visualisation is the mental stimulation of a specific action without any corresponding motor output,” explains Dr Martin Turner, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Staffordshire University. “In essence, you imagine your physical performance without actually physically moving.”
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It’s a proven technique supported by a significant amount of anecdotal feedback. Javelin thrower Steve Backley is renowned for winning silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics despite being unable to throw a javelin during the build-up after rupturing his Achilles.
Backley replaced physical training with visualisation thanks to working with Paul McKenna. “He helped me visualise the perfect throw, down to the time it took to throw and land. I saw it in 3D,” Backley said at the time. “My daily mantra became see it, feel it, trust it.”
Science supports the theory, too, according to Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin. “If you put athletes through an MRI scan who are visualising performance, almost all the parts of the brain that are active when you’re actually doing it are active when you’re imagining it,” he says. “It’s only the final pathways tied in with sending signals to the muscle that aren’t active.”
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Of course, mentally rehearsing winning your race in training won’t lead to gold. Yet visualisation can increase confidence, motivation and reduce stress, all of which lead to a better triathlon performance. So where do you go from here?
“Picture yourself performing the way you’d like to perform and, ideally, how you’re beginning to perform in training. You then play that video back in your head,” says coach Andy Bullock, who has a Masters in applied sports psychology to his name. “Or you can follow a process called ‘modelling’. This is finding somebody who you’d like to copy. Play a video back in your head of them performing. Then think about how you would execute that skill, and merge the two.”
An example is picturing Jonny Brownlee on the run. Jonny has an incredible stride rate, honed by drill sessions. Both Brownlees practise heel and ankle flicks, both designed to reduce contact time with the floor. You can easily do these in training – even just for 5-10mins each week – and then in the comfort of your home, first by visualising Jonny, and then you, practising the drill.
Bullock recommends spending 5-10mins each day visualising a certain element of performance, logically the area that you’re physically working on at the time. To maximise that time, Bullock advises you should spend visualisation time in a calm, quiet environment like a bedroom.
“Because you’re learning a new skill, you need to channel your concentration in that area,” he says. “You should also think about the noises at the time – anything to sharpen the colour of the picture. So if swimming, it could be the sound of your hands entering the water."
As well as honing individual techniques, you can apply visualisation to a race scenario. This is where a thorough course reconnaissance comes in. “When you ride, for instance, the brain should already have experienced those key turns and potential course issues before the race so your mind has a blueprint of what you’re facing,” says Turner. “And that’s key – only focus on the important parts of the race that’ll have significant impact on the outcome.”
That could be in T1, picturing yourself in real-time leaving the water, running to your area and swiftly exiting your wetsuit. Bullock recommends that you run through the course in your head in fast-forward, slowing things down for these significant areas.
The ideal is that you physically visit and recce the course beforehand but practical issues, like if you’re racing abroad, often make that impossible. That’s where Google Maps comes in, as well as an in-depth study of the course maps. “An increasing number of course videos are online these days, too,” says Bullock. “They put you in the situation. And that’s what you want – to paint as vivid and accurate a picture as possible.”
One final note is perspective. Some athletes like to picture themselves working through technique or the course in the third-person; others the first-person.
“Just choose the one that comes naturally to you,” says Bullock. Triathlon is a juggling act between work, family, social life and training. But finding just 5mins each day to visualise your best is achievable for all. It’s time to picture perfection.
(Images: Jonny Gawler / iStockPhoto / Getty)
For lots more triathlon training advice and drills head to our Training section