In October 1989, just five days after calf cramps had forced her to slow her pace in Minneapolis's Twin Cities Marathon, Kim Jones experienced a vivid dream. The 31-year-old saw herself gliding along the New York City Marathon course, floating up hills, passing competitors and, most important, running pain-free. Jones decided to enter New York—never mind that it was less than four weeks away, hardly enough time for a proper recovery.
Jones went on to place second and post the fastest American women's time on the course at the time: 2:27:54, a nearly four-minute improvement on her Twin Cities race. "I carried the dream with me," says Jones, now 49. "I had this clear image of myself running well, and it made me feel confident and strong."
Today, the masters athlete and running coach who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, encourages her clients to pursue their dreams as well. An increasing number of sports psychologists also are endorsing dreams as a training tool that can boost confidence and performance. "There's so much untapped potential in our dreams that can be applied to all kinds of endeavors, including athletics," says Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. In her book The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving—and How You Can Too, Barrett cites how legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus and boxing champion Floyd Patterson dreamed their way to better performances.
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While you sleep, your brain processes the thoughts, actions, and emotions of your day and mixes them with experiences from your past. The result is a screenplay of sights, sounds, and interactions that might seem chaotic and nonsensical, but Barrett says they can offer a window into your subconscious. This can help you uncover obstacles, develop an inspiring picture of success, and even work out on a virtual training ground.
You can't learn from your dreams if you can't remember them, so the first step to unlocking the power of your subconscious is to learn dream recall. To develop this skill, Veronica Tonay, Ph.D., a psychologist in Santa Cruz, California, and author of The Creative Dreamer, recommends keeping a journal next to your bed and recording the details immediately upon waking. The journal will help you identify ongoing themes, which Tonay says are often signs of a problem that your mind is fixated on.
Tonay once worked with a runner who had a recurring dream: He was running on a trail that was blocked by a boulder; each time he encountered it, he'd quit. He concluded that it represented his tendency to give up whenever his training became difficult. After making this connection, he joined a running group, which gave him the support he needed to stay on track. Another runner had bad dreams leading up to a marathon: He was stuck in traffic and missed the race; he forgot his timing chip; he threw up at the start. "With dreams like that, you should question if you're emotionally and physically ready," Tonay says. "It could mean that you aren't properly trained, your goal is too ambitious, or you're putting too much pressure on yourself."