Achieve Your Perfect Performance with Mental Rehearsal

Written by by Lori McConnell, RRCA Certified Running Coach, LMHC

Lori's career in the mental health world has prepared her to help athletes with mental training, a very important, and often overlooked aspect of running.  She has spent 16 years helping people to identify and change negative thinking, learn relaxation skills and positive self-talk to overcome anxiety and to believe in themselves once they have learned the necessary tools and techniques to thrive.  Lori believes that the mind can be a main component in getting started with a running program, setting and reaching goals, overcoming performance anxiety and reaching peak performance.  

There are bodies of research that have proven that mental rehearsal improves performance. Professional athletes have long used this knowledge to their advantage and it is a valuable part of their training. In this article, I will teach you how to visualize a perfect performance. Each time you practice this, your brain will create neural pathways that will encourage your muscles to work exactly as rehearsed.

To begin creating your own visualization, it is most helpful to have vivid images of yourself performing perfectly, these images can include sights, sounds and smells. Remember visions of the start line, scenery from the road, the look of the pavement or trail you ran on. Draw on the sounds of past race environments, such as people cheering, the sound of runners en masse, the call of “water” from volunteers at water stations. Your brain can store the sense of smell intensely; this might include the minty smell of ointments runners have lathered on to ease sore muscles or the smell of perspiration. Recall the way your body feels during workouts and races when you are at your peak and other positive experiences you can remember from other sports as well. Recall the emotional states you experienced during peak performances and solidify that in your mind. Hear and feel your foot strike on the ground when you are running with your most efficient form. If you are feeling stumped, you can watch footage of elites to picture idyllic form in your mind’s eye. You can cut out photos from magazines and have them posted around as visual cues.

Now that you have collected your stimuli, you will break your own personal visualization down into segments: pre‐race, during and post‐race sections. I will walk you through this by helping you identify points to focus on in each and then give you an example of what the narrative might look like. Once you have learned to put together your own narrative, I will describe how to structure your mental rehearsal session.

Your narrative will include details that you find useful and therefore will be more personal. Please note that the language I use in the example is stated in present tense and is free of negative statements. To make this drill most effective it needs to be done as if it is happening in present time, not the past or the future. The brain doesn’t process negatively stated thoughts effectively. For example, rather than stating, “I have no tension in my neck”, it is better stated as, “my neck is relaxed” for in the first statement, the brain will focus on “tension” rather than registering the “no” placed before “tension”. It is imperative to reframe statements in this way.

The creation of your visualization should start with your pre‐race routine. Picture yourself arriving to the race location with confidence and a deep belief that this is YOUR day. You feel prepared and ready for the experience that lay ahead. If pre‐race jitters begin to creep in, you take in a few deep breaths which center you and remind you that you are ready. If you are familiar with creating affirmations, it is good practice to place affirmations in this part of your visualization.

Example: I am driving into the lot at the race, I am in my element and it is my time to shine. I feel very aware and present, I know that today is my day. The crowds that are gathering increase my focus and my calm. I am meant to be here in every sense. As I begin my pre‐race routine, I am very aware that my body is ready to go, I am executing the warm‐up perfectly and I feel very much in the flow. My muscles are engaging and are relaxed yet ready to fire. My breath is easy and the rise and fall of my lungs feels comforting to me. Everything is feeling great, my outfit, my shoes, my pre‐race fuel, it is all as it should be and all sensations are easy. It has come together for me today and as I toe the line for the race to begin I feel the energy of the spectators and the sounds, sights and smells of the race environment are bserving to enhance my sense of confident centeredness. I have such excitement to begin this event!

The next section of the visualization is to mentally rehearse the actual race. Again, you will call on your recollection of your top achievements to date. Utilize these moments to gather material on the emotional, spiritual and bodily sensations you had when all was going right. It can be useful to picture yourself going through the entire race for a shorter race and key moments for longer races. Imagine how you will feel as you approach each mile marker. These thoughts should be of you making your goal splits or feeling the emotions that you want to have at each point of the race. Line up your mental rehearsal with your desired outcome for race day. Focus on areas that you wish to improve, for some this might be race strategy issues, maintaining positive self‐talk, dealing with fatigue, or staying focused. If you are familiar with mantras, this is a good point of the visualization to include those. While mantra construction is a very in‐depth and personal process, the general rules are picking a short phrase that motivates, is positive and invokes the feelings that you wish to have. Some people use things like “Be strong.”, “Nice and easy.”, “Fiercely fast.”, “Better than ever.”, “Smooth as silk”, “Powerhouse” or “This is what you do, be you”.

Example: I begin running and my legs are flowing effortlessly across the terrain. I am encountering each mile marker smiling as I realize I am easily hitting my splits and the miles are flying by. My body is smooth and graceful and I am meeting each difficult point with the ease of one who has prepared well. Even though I am pushing, I only feel stronger as the miles tick by, my shoulders are relaxed, the muscles in my arms and legs are firing with precision. My breath is keeping me focused and relaxed and it is such a nice, natural rhythm. This is what it feels like to be in the zone and this is my day. Each foot strike is so efficient, my turnover is light and quick. The sounds of the crowd are adding to the enjoyment of the experience as there is a synergy in the environment, I am fully in my body and the crowd is simply supporting my performance....this is the only thing this is the only moment, I am in the flow. The hills are proof that I am conquering this race, I get to the top of the hill, my legs are strong legs, this is evidence that I have more in me.

Lastly, create a visualization for the end of the race and the post‐event celebration. Again, you can utilize past experiences of crossing the finish line with your goal accomplished. If this has not yet happened in real life, use your imagination. You can call on emotions from achievements in other areas of your life. Imagine how this success feels in your body and the types of thoughts you have when you have attained a goal. Create a scene for the finish area, this may include your medal being placed around your neck, adoring fans screaming your name, your timing chip being cut off, the finish area food, the sounds of a finish line party, anything that motivates and excites you.

Example: Now I see the finish line approaching, I am elated and overcome with emotion as my training and performance all come together just as I had dreamed. Every ounce of my body feels alive and filled with joy and gratitude. I am thinking, “I am a champion! I did it! I knew I could!” I hear the announcer say my name as I cross. I stop my watch and my eyes fill with tears as I see my fastest time yet. I pump my fist triumphantly in the air as a lovely volunteer places my well‐earned medal around my neck. The weight of it against my chest feels like victory. My smile is permanently plastered on my face. This is the best day ever!

Now that you have each piece of your visualization: the pre‐race routine, the performance, and the finish line celebration, weave it all together into one narrative. Review it to make sure it flows exactly as you would like and that it conjures up vivid images. Tweak it as you see necessary to bring it to life and make it more positive. Next, record yourself reading the visualization. The best way to practice your visualization is once per day, with about 3‐4 sessions the week of the race. I recommend that you do not practice it the day of the race as it could fatigue you. When you go through the visualization be in a quiet place and choose a time of day where you will not fall asleep, sitting up in a comfortable chair or couch. Begin with diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. You can then begin to listen to your visualization.

There are a few instructions to leave you with before you begin your process of creating your

  • If you make a mistake during visualization, re‐do it in your mind until you are performing it as

you would like to on race day. If there are certain conditions, such as hills, heat or particular
mile markers that are obstacles for you, put them in your visualization and see yourself
conquering these factors.

  • You have noticed that you will need images and sensations to make this as successful as

possible, so if you are feeling stumped, on your next few workouts, pay attention to your
cadence, the sound of footfall, your shoulder tension, arm swing, sounds and sights on your
routes etc. This is all data for you to draw on to make your visualization vivid. You want the
experience to be more like you are in the movie rather than watching it from a seat in the
theater. This can take practice and if at first the best you can do is being an observer, do not
fret, with practice you will “feel” the mental rehearsal as if you are actually doing it.

I am thrilled that you will experience the beneficial effects of formal mental training. I enjoy
hearing from athletes about how this exercise elevated their race performances. If you need
guidance on creating your visualization or wish to share your success story, please email: