Are Imagery Reps as Effective as Interval Reps in Triathlon Training?

In triathlon training, especially Ironman distance races, mental strength is as important as physical, train your mind the same way.

Are Imagery Reps as Effective as Interval Reps in Triathlon Training? Ironman marathon

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” ~Napoleon Hill

One of my favorite mindset quotes is inspired by the book Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. Did you know, when you imagine your future, the same parts of the brain light up as where memories are stored?

Before any workout, race or challenging task ahead, the best thing you can do is take control of your mind and body by using visualization. This simple act can take anywhere from a few seconds to a more advanced five to ten minutes as part of your mental preparation.

Visualization is where you connect all of your senses such as sight, sound, smell, feelings, emotions and breathing, with images of yourself in action, and thus using your brain to create the imagery you desire.

The Proof is in the Research 

FUN FACT: “The brain cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined event. Neurons that fire together wire together. By either doing the activity or seeing and feeling yourself doing the activity, you are carving neural pathways that become stronger and stronger with each rep—performed physically or in your mind.” ~Collin Henderson

Research continues to show that visualization helps athletes enhance their performance.

In 1996, Dr. Blaslotto at the University of Chicago conducted a study on the effect of visualization on free-throws in basketball.

A group of randomly selected students first took a series of free-throws, which were recorded. They were then divided into three groups and asked to perform three separate tasks over 30 days:

  • First group didn’t touch a basketball for 30 days – absolutely no practicing or playing basketball.
  • Second group practiced shooting free throws for 30 minutes a day for 30 days.
  • Third group visited the gym and visualized hitting every free-throw for 30 minutes a day for 30 days.

After 30 days, each student re-took the series of free-throws they completed at the beginning:

  • First group showed no improvement.
  • Second group showed a 24 percent improvement.
  • Third group (visualization only) showed a 23 percent improvement!

The most decorated swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, is no stranger to visualization, as his coach Bob Bowman describes:

“For months before a race Michael gets into a relaxed state. He mentally rehearses for two hours a day in the pool. He sees himself winning. He smells the air, tastes the water, hears the sounds, sees the clock.”

It’s All About Association and Recognition

By visualizing a specific event, when that event occurs, it’s like your brain thinks, ‘Hey, I know how to positively respond to this, because I have all of these awesome memories to which I’ve responded in this super helpful, powerful and positive way. It’s like I’ve always responded this way and I wouldn’t do it any other way. YES!’

Your brain is creating narratives, videos, images and thoughts based on past experiences and responses (triathlon related or not) and determining which neural pathways are strong vs. weak, according to how you’ve unconsciously and consciously wired your brain.

It doesn’t differentiate between what response is most and least helpful to you. It determines how you act and think about your race by looking at which neural pathways you activate and strengthen the most and the least.

If you usually respond to a race in a negative way, like high anxiety the night before, when another race comes up, your brain is going to respond in that same negative way, as that’s your default setting.

Visualization Step by Step

Just like training for your race, in order to create lasting change and transform how you respond to your race, you need practice this skill. The below exercise is one I use with my athletes in a group as well as in individual sessions. Visualize what you’re going to do and think around your upcoming race. 

Step 1: Breathe – Find somewhere comfortable where you can shut your eyes, be still, and slow down your breathing for 10 to 15 minutes undisturbed. 

Step 2: Past Success – Ask yourself, ‘How would I love to feel and think during my race?’ Replay times when you were performing at your best, in a clear state and experiencing joy. Take note of all five senses in that memory. Replay times when you have overcome challenges and adversity to find success. This could be as big as a race or as small as a moment in a workout. See and feel these moments of past peak performances. 

Step 3: Future Success – Make a mental movie and rehearse your upcoming performance in your mind. Picture yourself executing at your highest level! Use all of your senses and put yourself there—what you can see, smell, feel, taste, even what you are wearing. Use those powerful feelings of past success to carry over and inform your future movie. Make your own future highlight reel with as much vivid detail as possible. 

Step 4: Anchor Your Success – Just as an anchor keeps a ship at sea grounded during wind, waves and storms, create anchor statements and quiet storms in your mind. You can do this by mastering your self-talk. List and focus on three neutral or positive thoughts that you will repeat to yourself throughout the day or performance (examples: Today is my day. . . . I am fierce and strong. . . . Trust my training. . . . I was born to do this. . . . I’m unstoppable). 

By doing this, you’ve effectively created 100 memories in which you’ve competed in the exact way you’ve wanted to!

Now your brain is prepared to respond in a really positive, powerful and helpful way when race day arrives. You’ve now re-written your default setting to be positive and powerful.

Assignment: Just like a workout session, can you schedule mental imagery reps into your training plan?

I want to share a quote from one of the athletes I work with. 

“As an age group triathlete I sometimes struggled with the swim portion of the triathlon. Thanks to Leah’s guidance and tools surrounding visualization techniques, I was able to get in the water at Virginia Blue Ridge 70.3 with virtually zero anxiety. I had visualized the entire race from start to finish and when I jumped in the water it was as if I had done it 100 times before. Thanks Coach!”

Jonathan used visualization techniques to conquer his fear and anxiety in the water on race day. You too can overcome pre-race jitters and perform at your best when it counts! Take the time to get in your mental reps as well as your physical training and maximize your potential on race day.

This just might be the missing puzzle piece to unlock your power and achieve your goals!

. . .

Leah Jantzen is an elite endurance athlete, life coach, motivational speaker and mother of four children ages 9-18. She finds the time to compete in the Boston Marathon every spring and recently qualified to race at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii next October. Leah uses her expert mental conditioning skills to perform at the highest level and teaches others to maximize their mindset through her private coaching membership, The Scrappy Athlete. 


IG: @leahjantzen