Every single one of us has felt pangs of regret after a disappointing race. You think back to those crossroad moments when your lungs were screaming and legs were burning and tell yourself: "I could have pushed harder,” or “I gave up too soon.” It's in those crux moments, when you have to choose between staying on the gas or letting up, that you need mental strength in addition to physical conditioning to prevail.
Regardless of your sport, it's critical to train mind as well as body (I guess the ancient Greeks were on to something). Indeed, in a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, researchers looked at the mental toughness of 151 college varsity athletes. Those who used imagery, especially those who imagined themselves mastering different competitive situations, scored higher on a mental toughness scale. Mental toughness is a somewhat subjective measure, but it's generally agreed upon by sports psychologists. You'd recognize it as what gets you through the most challenging parts of competition when you are tempted to give up and walk away (or, better yet, collapse onto the ground).
The research highlights the fact that athletic pursuits can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, either positive or negative. While visualization may sound hokey, it's worked for countless elite athletes, including Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and legendary runner Melody Fairchild. In fact, it's a safe bet that the majority of top-tier athletes use visualization to help them hone their competitive gameplans. It’s all about seeing yourself in the critical moments, so once you're there you are prepared to deal with them constructively.
When incorporating visualization into your training regimen, you should treat it like a mental dress rehearsal. Draw upon the great workouts from your training—the hard fartlek where your legs never tired—or picture your last great race and try to draw on those same positive feelings. Study up on the sights and sounds along the course to help shape your mental imagery as you execute your race plan, from your warm-up routine down to your breathing pattern.
Begin by finding a calm, quiet space where you can close your eyes. Some athletes visualize in bed as they fall asleep, while others prefer to do it in the morning prior to a workout or race. See yourself at the starting line with other competitors standing nervously around you. Anticipate any anxious or negative feelings and then focus on turning them into positive self-talk. Pick some motivating phrases or cue words—"I am stronger than the pain," for example—to help you push through hard stretches (and there will be rough patches). Take yourself chronologically through the rest of the race. Identify potential problem spots, imagine how your muscles and lungs will feel, and see yourself working through them. Once you reach those spots in real life, you’ll know exactly what to do.
Be sure to practice visualization on a regular basis, as part of your workout reoutine. This will ensure that your brain is in tune with the process before you get to competition and really need to call on it. It won't make up for poor training, but training for mental toughness can definitely take your running to the next level.