How can visualisation improve athletic performance?

Visualisation is a key skill that can pay dividends in your performance, says sports psychologist Sarah Huntley. Here she explains what it is and how it works

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What is visualisation?

You’ve most likely heard of a skill called ‘Visualisation’ – but what is it and how can it help you become a better triathlete? Visualisation (sometimes referred to as guided imagery or mental rehearsal) is the process of using your senses to mentally rehearse a skill you wish to execute.


When we first think about visualisation, commonly we assume it is just the sense of sight in use. However, best use of visualisation includes a combination of all of the senses. This helps to make the imagery more vivid. This includes visual (images and picture), kinesthetic (what it feels like) and auditory (sounds and noise). Using the mind, an athlete calls up this imagery over and over, enhancing the skill through repetition or rehearsal, similar to physical practice.

Visualisation is one of the most well-researched mental skills in the sporting arena and with practise, can really make the difference on race day. Put simply, visualisation is a one of the best ways to condition for your brain for successful outcomes, so it’s well worth spending some time learning how to do it.

Why is visualisation so useful?

We all know race day can be fast and furious. Combine a 5am start with loading up a car-full of kit, a long-drive, busy transition zone – I know from my own experience it can feel a little chaotic and daunting. In triathlon, there’s so much to remember, and all the ‘what if’s’ to plan for too. The finish line can seem a long way away when you’re donning your wetsuit and goggles for the swim. But imagine you had the opportunity for a practise run before the big day.

A chance to go through the whole race – from start to finish so you knew what to expect and could put a plan in place? This is where visualisation comes in.

The key here is that when you visualise, you actually stimulate the same brain regions as you would when you physically perform that same skill. Effective visualisation also fires impulses to the muscles, priming them for action. The more vivid the visualisation, the more effectively your brain primes your muscles to complete the same physical and technical action in a competition scenario. Therefore, by just using your mind, you can actually help your body physically prepare for race-day too.

Visualisation can maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of your training and makes up an essential part of the development of effective pre-competition strategies to help you cope with new situations before you actually encounter them. On top of race-day gains, visualisation has been shown to increase self-confidence, the ability to focus and concentrate as well as enhance an athlete’s ability to establish an optimum physical and psychological performance state prior to competition.

How do I start visualising?

1. Set 10-15 minutes aside, turn your phone on silent and sit in a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted.

2. Have an idea for something very specific that you want to imagine doing well in your sport. For example, this could be a difficult training session you know is coming up, getting into open-water for the first time this year, or even a section of an upcoming race you want to improve. For the purposes of this example, let’s imagine it’s the transition between the swim and bike phases you want to focus on. You know you could save valuable time here, and want to feel calm and in control throughout, without the worry of forgetting a crucial element of kit!

TOP TIP – The more specific and detailed you can get with your visualisation, the more effective this will be for you.

3. Effective visualisation is only possible from a place of relaxation, so firstly, spend a couple of minutes to breathe a little bit deeper and slower than you normally do. Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth triggers a relaxation response, so if you can, adopt nasal breathing throughout your visualisation.

TOP TIP – As much as you can, focus your attention on the breath and each time you find yourself distracted, bring your attention back to the sensation of the breath – how it feels going into and out of your body.

4. Next, close your eyes, and focus your mind on the act of performing at your absolute best for the scenario you came up with in Step 2. For our example with the swim-bike transition, you might want to start your visualisation from the last few strokes of the swim. You would then exit the swim, put your goggles onto your hat, and start the jog to transition, taking your wetsuit off on the way. Once you’ve located your bike, taken your wetsuit off and put your kit in the box, your visualisation would lead you on to clipping on your race number, along with putting your helmet and sunglasses on before exiting and getting on your bike. It might be useful to write down the order you want to do this process in before attempting the visualisation, as everyone does things differently!

TOP TIP – In this step, on top of what the actions look like, think about what sounds you might be hearing (the crowd clapping, the tannoy announcing the athlete’s names) and also what it might feel like – how do you want your body to feel in the water at the end of the swim and what surface will you be running on as you head to transition?

5. See if you can hold your focus on the visualisation for just one minute to begin with. Don’t worry if you’re only half way through your visualisation, once a minute is up, give yourself 30 seconds to repeat Step 3 before going back into your visualisation again.

Extend the time given to visualise incrementally each time you attempt it. Focus on quality, not quantity and see if you can get your visualisation as close to ‘real-time’ as possible – that is visualise for as close to the same amount of time as it would take you to actually do the skill.

TOP TIP – By repeating the same visualisation over and over, when you actually get to race day, you’ll feel like you’ve been there before. It’s a great feeling when it all flows and you can race calmer and more confidently than ever before!

As with any skill, learning to visualise effectively takes time. See if you can build a visualisation practice into each day – perhaps focusing on a different element of training or competition.

Reviewing your progress is key – after each session note down what went well and how you think you could improve the next session, and before you know it you’ll be visualising well without even thinking about it!

Sarah Huntley is a sport and performance psychologist based in Brighton. She works with elite and amateur athletes alike on a one-to-one basis either online or by phone. She is also a GB age-group aquathlete and long-distance triathlete so fully understands the mind of multisport athletes.

Want to work on your mental strength? Sarah is holding a ‘Fundamentals’ is a six-week sport psychology programme where you’ll learn the same mental skills elite athletes use to perform at their best. Work with me one-to-one or in a small group!


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