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Distance Running Imagery Works for All Standards

William Metcalfe

I've read much of the power of imagery when used by elite athletes but found little evidence of its use by club and fun runners, many of whom devote hours each week to their physical improvement However, their psychological development is often neglected.

This is a pity, since they would see much faster race times and quicker recoveries with more mental training. In my forties I could complete sub 2.50 marathons but as I aged and I could no longer repeat those times, my use of imagery allowed me to complete marathons in up to an hour longer without physical pain.

I used no professional help but spent the weeks before races preparing mentally for my big day. I would reflect on what I knew about the course, the gradients, the traffic, the prevailing wind and the likely weather I would encounter. I would imagine how I would feel at each stage of my race, who I would see, what I would hear and how my body would react. When training on the road in the weeks before racing I would imagine I was running, say miles 20 to 26 of the race so that when the race came, I had an image of my running easily, despite having covered 20 miles.

When I trained in poor weather, I used this to prepare for similar conditions on race day. Whenever I trained physically, I also used mental training so that I was completely prepared for the race, whatever happened.

Nowadays, I know that when I see a runner training with music on an mp3 player that they are unlikely to be using any mental processes to help them on a future race day. They are using the music to kill the time whilst training instead of using the power of their brain positively. Training runs will never be boring if the brain is fully active observing, listening, even smelling and feeling the environment in preparation for the future.

The mental conditioning continued when I'd returned home after training. When in bed I used a similar process to replicate my race using real time as much as possible. This meant when rehearsing running six-minute miles I spent six minutes imagining each mile. The process itself is quite draining, since the brain activates the body's nervous system as though the activity were taking place. Thus my breathing rate increased as did my pulse, requiring a warm down period to conclude the session to allow me to sleep easily.

On race day I was prepared for all eventualities and was not fazed by unexpected. I could run well in all weather and cope with strong winds in any direction, adjusting my pace as appropriate. As I did not allow outside events to disrupt my purpose , I ran in a much more relaxed fashion and, I believe, much faster.

Try it and see on your next training run, take in as much as you can, then try to imagine the same easy conditions when you are called to run much faster on race day. Mental rehearsal will top up your physical training to help you achieve faster times.

William Metcalfe works in a UK university sports department with athletics and weight training qualifications. He can be contacted via his website, or at

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