For most of us swimming, biking, and running are hobbies. Some of us might do the odd race, others will carve out their year around a carefully constructed race calendar; planning annual leave, booking holidays, arranging family functions (even weddings), all around their ‘A’ race. Regardless of where you may sit on such a spectrum, a large majority of us will admit that we spend a lot of time thinking about triathlon and racing. The journey of self-discovery and self-development that runs in parallel with the triathlon lifestyle is well engrained, but also alluring and intoxicating. Bettering ourselves, reaching goals, overcoming setbacks, and improving performance through endurance sport can have beautiful flow on effects into all aspects of life.
Many of us spend hours dreaming with our families; encouraging, or perhaps taunting our training partners; streaming podcasts and reading articles. What race will I do next? How fast can I go? What’s the best run session to do mid week? Do I need a new bike? How fast are those wheels? Do minimalist shoes really work, how about Hoka’s? What’s your FTP, lactate threshold, max HR? How can I get my wattage up, my stroke more efficient, my cadence like Froomies…???? Lets face it, the list is endless! As a breed we think A LOT about this stuff!
And if we’re really honest with ourselves, we know there’s no magic bullet that is going to fix all our triathlon problems? In a world in love with short-term gains, an old adage runs true in triathlon: consistent, hard work over many weeks, months, and years truly does bring about the greatest rewards. Yet, what if I could tell you that the time you spend thinking about triathlon (or anything for that matter) can actually make you better at it?
The role of visual or mental imagery on physical performance has been well researched over the past 50 years or so. Countless studies have demonstrated that visualisation or mental practice can have profound effects on both the acquisition and performance of motor skills.
Mental preparation in triathlon offers a number of important opportunities. At a basic level, most of us tap into some sort of mental preparation during race preparation. Whether intentionally or not, we tend to spend quite a bit of time thinking through what race day will be like, scoping out the course, the weather (a triathlete’s favourite pastime?), and how we might respond or act. More comprehensively though, what researchers classify as mental practice is the cognitive rehearsal of a physical action or skill without the presence of overt physical movement. Put simply – we rehearse what we want to do in our minds, without trying to physically do it.
Mental practice has two main benefits, as a learning aid, and as a performance aid.
As a learning aid, visualisation assists in enabling us to acquire (learn) a new skill. This is especially important in skills that are highly organised or complex. We often call these sorts of movements ‘technical’, and in the world of triathlon, swimming is our prime candidate. I frequently encourage athletes to visualise their stroke, both within the water, and out of it. Outside the water I encourage a little movement, often to help create an image that can be applied in the water. The intention we bring to this ‘work’ is powerful. The research supports that when we imagine ourselves sitting higher in the water, or catching more water, or applying greater pressure through our stroke, we may improve in those areas without even getting wet. Using mental imagery or practice to learn a new skill also offers us a foundation to draw on to increase performance in a skill that we have already learnt.
As a performance aid, visualising successful outcomes through rehearsal has been shown to increase physical performance without producing any overt movement… That’s right – sitting on a couch or lying in bed (done well) can improve your swim time in your next race.
There are five types of imagery that are most often used in order to drive performance and are either motivational or cognitive.
Motivational imagery includes:
- Imagining yourself achieving a specific goal like a gold medal, a new PB, a Strava KOM, a World Champs team, or Kona slot.
- Offering general mastery, like staying focused or concentrating.
- And general arousal, being able to relax in pressure situations.
Cognitive imagery can be:
- Specific, like maintaining good high elbow catch in swimming;
- Or general, like running strong at the end of a session or race.
So what does the research say?
Well let’s come back to our swimming example, and with it being mid winter take the approach that it’s more difficult to swim, as its cold and many pools are closed. Lets now take four people, and allocate them the exact same amount of training time to apply to swimming. The first decides to put off leaning to swim for a few months – it’s just too hard! The second decides to use some great mental imagery tips they read about in an article and just visualise swimming. The third decides to jump in and swim in winter anyway. The fourth embarks on an ambitious regime splitting their time between swimming and mental practice.
The results? Significantly, person four comes out on top, and importantly person two improves, not as much as person three, but still improves by using visual imagery alone. This offers quite profound opportunities for the typical age group athlete, with many and varied responsibilities beyond their triathlon ‘career’. It also opens up a world of options during injury rehabilitation, travel, family and work commitments etc. As a coach, the staggering and most exciting part about this research area for me is that the best performance increases are found when physical practice is combined with mental practice. A typical triathlete who has 10 training hours a week but uses 3 of them for intentional mental practice, can expect better results than if they used those same 10 hours for physical practice alone. Wow!
In a sport that can demand a lot of time, resources and logistics, allocating some of your precious time to positive intent toward your swim, bike and run can reap massive benefits. Mental practice is a very smart decision.
Finally, it’s important to note, that visual imagery is a skill in itself. Some people have greater ability to visualise than others, but like anything, a concerted focused effort will bring greater performance and learning outcomes for your chosen skill through the use of mental practice than if you chose not to pay attention to it.
Train smart, race fast,
Dave Williamson is a Triathlon Australia Level 1 Development Coach, head coach of AP10 in Adelaide, and studies Exercise & Sports Science at Uni SA. Dave has 10 years experience in racing Triathlon, and over 18 years of coaching experience across a number of sports. AP10 is a successful triathlon team of over 70 athletes and 6 coaches across Australia committed to continual improvement, performance, and having a stack load of fun.
M: +61 417 073 431