The secret to running faster is all in your head

While the jury’s still out on whether The Secret can actually manifest your dreams (um, where’s my Tuscan villa with an infinity swimming pool?), there is growing proof that visualization in the realm of running will actually help you cross the finish line.

Just ask psychologist Dr. Jeff Brown and fitness expert Liz Neporent, authors of the recently released Runner’s World book The Runner’s Brain: How to Think Smarter to Run Better. They point to recent studies—including one in which a group of beginner weight-lifters actually increased their strength without so much as even stepping inside a gym thanks to some visualized workouts—as evidence that imagining success will actually create success. “Reaching a goal in your mind’s eye can move you closer to it, all while saving some extra wear and tear on your body,” says Dr. Brown, in a section of the book devoted to visualization and focus.

But don’t start hitting the snooze button on your AM workouts just yet; after all, running a race without proper training could lead to major injury. Dr. Brown maintains that combining visualization exercises with physical training is the key to optimizing performance, and encourages his runner clients to imagine different scenarios until they find the one that works best.

And once you find one that fits you better than your favorite yoga pants, Dr. Brown recommends that you utilize all senses (you can finally say that you know the smell of success) and make sure you’re controlling every—yes, every—aspect of your imagined scenario. “These two factors alone are what make visualization so powerful,” he promises.

Here five of Dr. Brown’s exercises that put you in the headspace to cross the finish line IRL:
Visualization #1: You Do You
Imagine a goal you have, such as finishing a marathon, in very specific detail—down to the clothes you’re wearing (which are cute, obviously) or the taste in your mouth. Make the image as real as possible and put aside any doubts you might have about its authenticity.

“Consider adding some affirmations, such as, ‘I’m fast,’ ‘My stamina is endless,’ or, ‘Nothing can stop me,’” Dr. Brown suggests in what he calls the First Person Success visualization. “Repeat this enough and those affirmations will weave themselves into the fabric of your thinking.”

The final step? Carry the positivity of your visualization into your actual run.

Visualization #2: The Success Movie
Imagine you’re in a movie theater watching a movie. You’re the star, and you’re in the process of completing one of your goals.

“In this script, everything goes according to plan,” says Dr. Brown. “You’re part of the crowd watching and cheering yourself on. You see and hear everything, but from the perspective of an outsider…Imagine the thrill of watching this scene unfold.”

When you’re done, reflect on what you saw and think of what advice you’d give yourself to accomplish your goal in the way you visualized it. And if in the movie you’re also BFFs with Jennifer Lawrence, that could probably only help.

Visualization #3: Back to the Future
This exercise, which Dr. Brown dubs Stepping into a Movie, is a combination of the first two techniques. Start The Success Movie visualization. After you’ve set the scene, imagine stepping into it and working toward your goal. After a few moments, step back out of the scene and into the movie theater to watch the final moments of the movie.

The process is a little meta, but according to Dr. Brown, “Now you have a holistic perspective of your success scenario. Carry that with you into your next run.”

Visualization #4: Step by Step
Instead of focusing on the completion of the goal itself, this exercise—called Process Visualization—hones in on the specific steps you’ll need to take to get there. Starting at where you currently are in your training, mentally walk through 10 events that need to happen in order for you to reach your goal. Be specific (but don’t dwell on any particular step), and make sure you always keep your desired outcome in sight. A variation of this exercise is to research or—if you can swing it—visit your race course and imagine running it in detail.

“A process review like this helps crystalize all the stepping stones you need to hop across to take you from where you are right now to where you want to be,” says Dr. Brown.

Visualization #5: Board Games
If you’re struggling with creating mental pictures, Dr. Brown says making physical, visual reminders of your goals works too, whether it’s a bulletin board or an online collection of inspiring quotes and images (see, all that time on Pinterest is finally paying off).

“For example, you can create a vision board where you post a collage of photos and written affirmation statements of what you’re trying to achieve,” suggests Dr. Brown in a visualization called Creating Pictures. Just be sure that what you create doesn’t end up collecting dust; it only works if you refer to it often in order to reinforce your overall goal. —Larkin Clark

(Photos: Flickr, Offset/Shutterstock)

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