Sports psychologists and elite runners know that positive visualization—the practice of imagining the perfect race from starting gun to finish line—can be a powerful race prep tool. But have you ever thought about negative visualization? Find out why one top coach has his athletes imagine everything that could possibly go wrong on race day to help them succeed.
Chris Hauth is a two-time Olympian and 2006 IRONMAN age group champion who coaches athletes at all levels across a wide range of endurance sports. He owns AIMP Coaching (Advanced, Integrated Mindset and Performance) based in Corte Madera, California, and talks all things endurance on his podcast, The Weekly Word. Hauth's coaching philosophy is centered on cultivating mental toughness and preparedness, and his use of negative visualization is an important part of that strategy.
ACTIVE: Can you describe your philosophy on negative visualization?
Chris Hauth: It's not used as a depressing "all that can go wrong" strategy but as a way to prepare for what could go wrong. You want to be ready mentally, physically and spiritually for what you can't control. For example, you can focus on [if you] have a GI issue, [you might have to] walk a lot. You can visualize what you are going to be doing while you're walking. What specifically are you going to be thinking and doing?
You might have to deal with bad blisters; or you overheat and have to stop and pour cold water over yourself to cool down, drink some water and rehydrate. After something like that, it's about constructing a new narrative for the remainder of the race. The beauty of endurance racing is that even when something goes wrong, you still have a lot of real estate left to have a great race.
I have yet to talk to an athlete who didn't have a hard time at some point in a race, and I don't want my athletes having moments of panic. If this is thought about and worked through prior [to starting], when things pop up, we can increase the likelihood of making a good decision versus a bad one.
ACTIVE: Do you use positive visualization with your athletes as well?
CH: I do, but what the latest studies and psychology have shown is that not everyone responds well to visualization. Athletes tend to tunnel through the race portion and see themselves crossing the finish line. This can be great for motivation, but visualization is most effective when you're actually going through the course in your mind. It helps you get to know the terrain and how your body might respond.
Visualization might not necessarily be positive or negative. It should feel like training. Think about world class skiers—Lindsay Vonn—she goes through the whole course in her mind exactly, in real time. We can't do that for long races, but we can pick key points or events and imagine how we will feel, what we might need and how best to respond.
It's almost like meditation. You start with 30 or 40 seconds, and it's hard. But as you practice, you get better at seeing more of the race. It's half the fun for brand new athletes to the half or full marathon to see what they're thinking it will be like. I have my athletes write down what they think is going to happen, so I can review it and clear up any misconceptions and take away as many concerns as they may have before that first time out.
ACTIVE: You're an elite-level masters athlete yourself. Can you tell us about a time when negative visualization helped you in an event?
CH: I would say that happens all the time. Last year at Ötillö, because I had done it the year before, I had the course in mind, and I was constantly thinking, "OK, we'll be walking here. What if I slip or my partner slips. What will we do?" I'm constantly putting myself on the course in the weeks before so that on race day, I'm not necessarily on autopilot, but I'm further and further into the course without something happening that I'm not prepared for."
ACTIVE: Can you give our readers some practical tips on how to use negative visualization? What's the process like? How often should they do it? For how long?
CH: I would surely recommend starting with a skeleton: start, finish and what you'll feel like in between. Close your eyes, and ask yourself a lot of questions. At the start: What will I be wearing, will I be cold or hot, how many other people will be there, will it be dark or light? At the finish: What will it be like? Cheering or empty? Dark or light? On a road or a trail? Middle point: How tired will I be? Will I need fluid? Will I be cramping? What if I get blisters?
I recommend starting visualization for how you want your day to go about six weeks out from your event. See it like a movie flickering in front of you. Practice at least once a week; three times a week is plenty. Sit or lie down someplace quiet, and see how your day goes—how you want it to go and how could it go wrong. Take some notes when you think, "Oh, I've got to ask my coach about this or that."
ACTIVE: Any parting thoughts?
CH: Visualization lets us enjoy the fruits of our labor before we even get to race day, and it continues to reinforce the joy of why we're doing this in the first place. But don't worry; there will always be something fun, exciting, surprising and exhilarating that pops up in the race and makes it a unique experience. That's what keeps us coming back again and again.
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