Friday, August 14, 2009

The Power of Visualization


During a track session this week, I was just about to start my 3rd mile repeat and felt the need for an extra push. I was really having to work on the first two repeats to get my legs spinning the first 800 meters, so I was looking for that little bit of extra motivation to bring home the last mile with a good time. I was right on 6:33s the first 2 miles, which for me is pretty darn quick. I wanted to go sub-6:30 on the last one. As I readied myself for the start, I drew on some visualization experiences from Marathon des Sables that made a huge difference in that race. I've included some quick excerpts at the bottom of this message if you'd like to get a taste and perhaps consider some ideas that may help you some day.

Back to the track and remembering this experience in Morocco, I visualized friends from all walks of my life lining up beside me. Friends from Colorado, Atlanta, Seattle, Zurich, and the Twitterverse/FB-osphere took their places and then surrounded me in a peleton as I started what I had hoped would be a fast 1600 meters.

Through the first 2 laps I sat comfortably in this virtual pack -- visualizing faces, visualizing cheers and words of support. For 800 meters I didn't feel like I was running. I literally felt pushed -- pushed by this imaginary force. I'm not talking a figurative push here -- physically I felt stronger, faster, and less tired than I should have at the pace I was running. My stride felt lighter and I didn't notice the lactic acid that was certainly building up. Different people rotated to the front -- blocking the wind and cutting a path through the track.

At the start of the final 800, I visualized that some friends were dropping off -- their job finished. I ran harder now for them -- for their efforts to help me. Lap 3 brought a small group to the front. They fought the wind with all their might -- I fought just to stay on. I visualized hearing words of encouragement shouted from each one -- seeing actual faces in my mind. "I've got your back! I'm on your side! Stay on my wheel!".

I hit lap 4 -- my face showing pain and my lungs bursting. I visualized my best friend, my lieutenant, my Hincapie, take the lead. Everyone else was off at this point. He charged that last 400 meters just like Hincapie's lead-out for Cavendish in this year's Tour de France. I chased to hold on not for me -- but for his sacrifice. We laid it all on the line -- working as a team for a final push around the track. On the final turn he pulled off allowing me to slingshot past. Sweat stung my eyes -- the pain was now too much to ignore. I raced for the finish though -- running hard more for my helpers than for any other reason.

I crossed the finish line like 8 massive Rolls-Royce jet engine were strapped to my back and stuck at full throttle. My heart rate was nearly at 200 BPM and my vision was in a fog. My legs finally slowed down, the jet engines vanished, and I snapped out of my visualization to realize that I was all alone -- on a track outside of Zurich -- on a sunny morning with no one else in sight. My watch read 6 minutes, 8 seconds. I dropped nearly 30 seconds off my mile pace just through the power of visualization and the power of having some awesome friends from around the world whose energy and support I can tap into as an enormously powerful source of fuel and motivation.

Visualization is an awesome tool for the endurance athlete -- for anyone really. Give it a try and please let me know how it works for you!

In closing, here are a couple of visualization excerpts from my MDS posts:

My knee is hurting again and I'm slightly dizzy. The hours of running alone and the intense heat are getting to me. I need strength -- I need support. I begin a series of visualizations -- not quite hallucinations, but not far off either! I see my friend Sean directly in front of me, turning around to look me in the eye every 30 seconds to tell me to stay strong and stay with him. I then see my family off to one side and my friends off to the other. They form a long line, reaching the way out into the desert. They take turns running by my side, telling me to keep pushing hard for the finish line. My wife, my parents and in-laws, my grandmothers, my sister --my coach, my colleagues, my friends, my boss -- they all have a moment to share a cheer or a look of encouragement. My late granddad appears to tell me to "stay tough, boy - stay tough". My body is spent and my mind is at its limit. Everything hurts, but I'm filled with an enormous energy and waves of emotion that are surging me to the finish.

and (from the following stage) ...

As I enter the final 11K, I feel utterly exhausted and still mentally tapped-out from the long stage. The strength of my grandmothers has powered me through most of today's stage. During this last stretch, the winds pickup -- headwinds. I need help - I need support. Suddenly I begin to envision my cyclist friends from the U.S. appear across the desert. They are riding in two large packs, coming from both sides. They swoop in front and beside me, forming a peleton to shield me from the wind. They take turns pulling and each drops back to ride right in front of me -- offering an encouraging word along the way. I see their faces and hear them shout "stay on my wheel Jeff, stay on my wheel!". They are working hard and taking this very seriously - sacrificing themselves to take the wind for me. All kitted out in cycling gear, they are putting in a maximum effort to pull me through the most challenging of moments. I can see them suffering -- riding at their limits and working as a team to aid me at what's nearly my breaking point. The strength I feel from this visualization is surreal. Whenever my mind starts to wander and starts to think about the pain, the lack of a visible finish line in the distance, the headwind, the heat, the hills -- I refocus on my peleton of friends and my energy level surges. An hour passes and the finish line finally comes into view. The peleton quietly peels off to the side and disappears into the desert, leaving me to finish alone.

Happy outdoor play!


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