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Use Imagery to Excel This Season

bike finish line By Dr. Michelle Cleere

Imagery is a form of stimulation that is similar to real sensory experiences, except with imagery the experiences happen in the mind. Through imagery you can recreate previous positive experiences, which involves recalling from memory pieces of information stored from your past and using them to shape further meaningful experiences. Your mind remembers these events and recreates pictures and feelings for you to use for future events.

Through imagery you can also create events that have not yet occurred. For example, beginner triathletes who have not yet had many real experiences with the sport can begin creating initial positive experiences of their own by observing others. A beginner triathlete can begin to view other triathletes training and racing and begin to create positive experiences that will help shape future behaviors. If you have ever watched a triathlete on a bike and tried to mentally rehearse those moments, or you’ve watched someone you thought was a great swimmer and tried to mimic that person’s stroke, or you’ve watched a runner on television and tried to copy that runner’s stride or arm swing, all of this is your mind’s way of remembering events and creating pictures and feelings of them.

Imagery should include as many senses as possible. Think back to your favorite movie. If you were watching the movie but had no sound, what would your experience be like? What if you had sound but no picture? Now imagine you were watching and listening to your favorite movie and you could taste, smell and feel everything going on in that movie. How would that change your experience? You have probably attached various emotional states to your favorite movie: sadness, laughter, anger, etc. Because we use so many of our senses when we watch a movie, it feels like real life and that is why we watch it. Imagery is much the same way.

You can generate information from memory that is essentially the same as an actual experience. Because you can do this, those images can have an effect on your nervous system similar to the original or actual experience.

Psychoneuromuscular theory: when an athlete practices using imagery, the athlete imagines movements without performing. However, the brain interprets this as if the athlete were performing or competing, which provides similar impulses in the brain and in the muscles. Small impulses fire from your brain to your muscles with the exactness that you are imagining.

Cognitive theory: states that the “blueprint” (map) in your mind is changed through imagery. For example, if you’ve run for years with your arms swinging across your body you will automatically do that out of habit every time you run. However, if you learn that better arm swing positioning is probably straight back and forth, you can help change your mind’s blueprint by using imagery.

Where to begin
Recreate a past personal experience. Think back to a time when you were in your zone during triathlon training or competition. Recreate that experience by writing down as much as you can remember, using as many of your senses as possible.  

Create a positive experience you have not had. If you can’t remember having your own past positive experience, the next best thing is to use someone else’s. Most of us know someone in our sport we think of as a role model or if not a role model, we know of someone who is an icon in the sport. Think about what makes that person a role model or an icon. If you have a DVD or can find one of this person participating in the sport, watch it and think about what makes this person a role model or an icon. Write all of those elements down on a piece of paper again including as many of the senses as possible.

Write a story about your own past, positive experience or the person you see as a role model or icon. As you think about the situation or experience include as much about it as you can. Include all of the senses to make your imagine as vivid as possible.

When to use imagery
Use snippets during your day whenever you have a moment, particularly in times when you are thinking about your triathlon training or competition. This can be useful when you are having anxiety or thinking negatively about your triathlon training or competition.

Incorporate imagery into your dreams. Think about your imagery piece prior to going to sleep. This will help it to remain fresh in your mind and allow your subconsciousness to carry it over into your dream state. 

Use imagery as part of a pre-practice/pre-performance routine. A pre-practice/pre-performance routine is a way of positively structuring your experience before training and competition to keep you focused on the task at hand.

Imagery takes practice
Everything we do in life takes development, support, and refinement. None of what we do is (really) automatic. Imagery takes practice. You need to develop your piece of imagery. You need to support it by giving it the time it deserves through patience and practice. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of imagery because you will have to train yourself to stay focused enough to use it. You will also need to work on refining your piece of imagery by providing more vivid thoughts (using more senses) and better controllability (learning to manipulate your images so they do what you want them to).

The benefits of imagery

  • As a triathlete, imagery can be beneficial in a variety of ways.
  • Imagery can improve concentration. If you are focused on what you want to do and how you want to do it, then you won’t be focused on unrelated elements of your performance that detract or distract from your performance.
  • Imagery can build confidence. Although your coach might be yelling at you because your swim was not what he wanted it to be, you can still feel good about your performance by visualizing yourself taking control and maintaining confidence about your swim and the rest of your race.
  • Imagery can help control emotional responses. If you are feeling lethargic about your training or a race, imagery can get you pumped up. On the other hand if you are feeling uptight or anxious imagery can help reduce those symptoms.
  • Imagery can help you acquire or practice sports skills. You can practice skills to fine tune them or realize weaknesses and then visualize correcting them. Research clearly concludes that combined with physical practice imagery can produce superior skill learning.
  • Imagery can help you cope with pain or injury. Imagining the healing of an injured area can speed recovery. Using imagery to practice drills help keep skills from deteriorating during injury.
  • Imagery can help solve problems. When a triathlete is not performing at expected levels of performance, imagery can help that athlete imagine current performance and compare that to more successful past performances to find out where the problem is.

As children we reveal considerable imagery capabilities but are quickly taught to neglect this form of thinking to develop our analytical and language centers. Fortunately, although we are taught not to, we can still utilize that area of our brain. Much like a muscle is strengthened, imagery skills can be regained through practice. It’s not magic. It’s a human capacity that few athletes have developed to its potential and most people have chosen not to use. With all the potential benefits imagery has to offer, why not give it a try?

Dr. Michelle Cleere (PhD, Certified USA Triathlon Level I Coach, NASM-CPT) has coached hundreds of amateur and professional athletes who compete in sports that require a high degree of mental endurance, toughness and focus to get more out of their training, obtain better results and lead more balanced lives. For a free initial consultation email

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.