Now that we are in the midst of the off-season, how is your training going? Are you still on track to being more fit than ever going into the 2017 track and field season? If so, then great! Training in these cold and wet months, or as we’ve recently seen, freezing and icy conditions, takes real commitment! However, if training has been sidetracked for any reason, perhaps Visualizing a forecast of your 2017 season can help you get started!
Visualization is the use of the minds-eye to see or imagine a performance. It's a controlled fantasy of the mind; a fantasy which can come into fruition through determination and consistent training. Visualization allows you to draw upon raw emotions, from defeat and disappointment, to victory and valor, both superior motives for religious training in the off-season.
So, how do you perform Visualization? It's likely something you already do, and it may be that you only need to tame it. Practicing the progressive steps towards optimal visualization during the off-season can give you an advantage during the season when a coach is providing feedback on technique or when you are seeing yourself through video-analysis and you are trying to control a bodily movement - visualization can help with this!
Though visualization can take place virtually anywhere, initial practice of the visualization process in a low-pressure setting is suggested for optimal results. As you become familiar with each of the steps, you may then advance the practice into actual training sessions. For example, when practicing Breathing Control, it is suggested to create a mantra which produces a feeling of relaxation. The mantra may be as simple as the word "relax." Whatever the word or phrase you choose, the idea is to first practice that mantra while learning Breathing Control. After a few sessions of Breathing Control, the next step is to practice your mantra while performing - when running intervals gets difficult, you can then say to yourself "relax," recalling that sensation of what full relaxation feels like, attempting to mimic that sensation while your body is fully engaged in the workout.
Practicing your mantra during all types of running, from interval days to easy run days, is an important part of the "running with the mind" process. A relaxed mind is fully engaged in the moment, ready for anything, from responding with a surge to staying in-tune with your form and posture. Having a full-mind ability to apply your mantra can provide you with an opportunity to learn to control your emotional and physical exertion levels.
The steps in which we practice optimal visualization include, 1) Breathing Control, 2) Progressive Relaxation Training, and then 3) Visualization. Initially, it may take 10-20 minutes to reach the point of Visualization, though it really depends on the duration of the preceding steps. For example:
Breathing Control: Ideally, lying on a flat surface, focus only on the simplicity of the breath. Inhale for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four. The pace of the count from one to four may take 4-8-seconds initially, but by within a few minutes, the count from one to four may take 10-15 seconds. The inhales and exhales are at the same cadence. Practice breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth. After 5-10 minutes, progress to the next phase of the process.
Progressive Relaxation Training: While still lying on the flat surface, beginning with the feet, curl the toes like you are picking up a pencil and hold that contraction for about 5-seconds. Next, flex the toes so they are pointing up in the direction of the knees, holding for 5-seconds. Next the calves followed by the shins, hamstrings, gluteals, quads, abdominals, chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and fingers/fists, each for about 5-seconds. In between each muscle group, be sure to take a moment to perform some breaths. As you become more familiar with PRT, you may combine muscle groups (hamstrings and glutes are a natural and easy combination). You may also wish to connect your mantra with the inhale or exhale, whichever makes the most sense to you. In time, once you can easily differentiate between being stressed (contracting a muscle group) and fully relaxed (letting go of that contraction/stress), you can omit the contraction phase of PRT and simply relax the body, perhaps triggered by your cue word. The hope is to relax on cue, within a split second, heightening attentional focus to the body as needed. To move this practice, PRT, into your training, make your best attempt to relax muscles which do not contribute to proper running mechanics. For example, head, face, neck, shoulders and elbows can stay relaxed, while your arms, hamstrings, glutes, calves and balls of your feet remain highly active.
Visualization: If you have been able to pay attention to your breathing and all of the static contractions and relaxations, then to a degree, you've already been visualizing. To formalize the process a bit more, imagine yourself standing at the top of a staircase. Once you see the stairs in front of you, proceed to walk down the stairs until you see a door. Once you reach the door, push the door open and walk into the room. Once you are in the room, there are three scenarios taking place. One: in front of you is a table with your favorite dessert sitting on a plate. First observe your dessert: perhaps the aroma, the colors, the texture, etc. Next, using a utensil or your fingers, pick up a slice or piece of your desert and take a bite. Notice the texture and the flavors, as you continue chewing that delicious treat. You may spend a couple of minutes enjoying this moment. Two: the next scenario is a natural chaser - the beverage. Similar to the dessert, are there any noticeable aromas, colors or textures? What kind of cup or glass is this beverage in? Is it cold or hot, and, more importantly, can you feel the temperature when you touch the cup? Next, take a drink. Notice the consistency, the flavors, and everything that comes with this beverage. Three: Imagine yourself standing on your driveway at home under the awning of your house. It's a cool morning, but you are not bothered by the temperature. It's raining, but it's more like a light drizzle. Reach out with your hand, palm up, and let the rain fall into the palm of your hand. Next, bring your hand back to your chest, start your watch, and go for a run. The rest is in your hands - or, imagination. Once you have concluded your visualized run, walk out of the room to the stairs, and then back to the top of the stairs.
As you practice visualization, consider imagining things you wish to work on. For example, if you would like to work on being taller while running, then visualize the cues you heard during practice, and imagine executing those cues during visualization. This specific visualization, where you are working on form or technique will help train your nervous system to hone your running mechanics. Will the act of visualization make you faster or improve your VO2? No. But it can help with your form and proper running mechanics, which can go a long way in making running more efficient, thus improving your times.
Good luck and have fun!