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Visualization in Running

By Lauren Evans

“If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” The oft-used quote by Walt Disney himself isn’t just a feel-good statement. It is a truthful call to action! If America had never thought of itself as a “city on a hill” and an example of how to make democracy work, the country would never have wielded the broad-influence it did at the turn of the century. 

Visualization is part of the American psyche. You have to see and know where every precipice is on your path to success in order to avoid the pitfalls and reach your goal. Since sport is a microcosm of life, imagery applies just as well to athletic endeavors. Imagining a skill actually gives rise to similar brain activity to the neural activity that accompanies the actual performance. This is true right down to the firing order of the individual neurons involved. 

Imagery gets muscles ready for physical action – whether it’s a big serve in a tennis match, a challenging swim dive, or a clean jerk in weight lifting. This connection between what the brain is doing and what you tell your body to do means that imagery has great potential for injured athletes. Research has shown that imagery and relaxation exercises can actually accelerate the rehabilitation process post-injury or surgery. At the same time, the athlete is mentally practicing during the time off, so they are sharper and have already performed the set activity before actually returning to their sport. 

The most positive imagery results have occurred with athletes involved in “closed skill” activities. These activities are ‘self-paced’; a sport in which the athlete is in entire control of what they are doing. Examples include the serve in tennis, the free throw in basketball, and, it certainly bodes well for running. At no point during a race does the sport become “open-skilled”. For example, no one (in general) will tackle a runner or interfere with someone’s race, actions that are typically associated with an “open skill” sport. 

As an open-skill sport, the runner can imagine, with nearly pinpoint accuracy, their race scenario. When a course has to be followed, imagery is especially powerful. For example, in the Vancouver Olympics, Amy Williams won a surprise gold medal in the bob skeleton. Knowing that there is barely any time to think during this event (athletes speed down the course at 135km/hr), Amy made special use of her visualization skills – she knew the course like the back of her hand. 

As another example, Lance Armstrong took the approach of posting pictures of the course he was going to race all around his house. He also made pictures of the course his screensaver.


It is important to note, however, that imagery ability differs greatly among athletes. Athletes who are better able to picture clear images in their head tend to be better at imagining their upcoming race scenario in accurate detail, thus leading to a better performance. However, practice very much applies with imagery. As the athlete commits to a certain about of purposeful imagery sessions during their training, they can integrate their senses – smell, touch, feel, etc. – thus making the sensation ever more “real”. 


How to get started: 

  1. Set aside a time and place to imagery train. Commit to one imagery session per week. 

  2. Write down your imagery instructions as a “script”.

  3. Use imagery as often as possible during your training sessions. Use a cue – for example, every time you look at your watch or see your ring or whatever (you can even draw a dot on your hand), it prompts you to think of how you act in a race. 

  4. Use as many senses as possible: see, taste, hear, touch, smell. 

  5. Find images that help you in running: 

    1. Ex your foot moves like a wheel (good-form)

    2. Hips are like a bowl of soup

    3. Finish like a steam-train

    4. Visualize someone pushing you up a hill

    5. Visualize a rope between you and the competitor in front of you – slowly pull up on the rope over a distance so you are eventually neck and neck and ready to pass. 

  6. Practice “what if” scenarios

    1. What if I don’t feel good at the start? 

    2. What if I feel great at the start? 

    3. What if it’s raining? 

    4. What if there’s a headwind / tailwind? 

    5. What if I miss the water stop at mile 13? 

    6. Etc. Imagine everything. 

  7. Recall a previous performance in which you were “in the zone”. 

    1. Imagine the exact state you were in before competition – focus, self-control, self-confidence, etc. 

    2. Step into that same state yourself, and know exactly how it feels both mentally and physically. 

    3. Try to encapsulate that feeling in a word, image or feeling. 

    4. Use that word in the future to trigger yourself into the appropriate state of performance arousal. It can be anything – a racehorse, feeling invincible, God, whatever works for you. 



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