Visualization Can Make You A Better Runner?


The Backstory

Let’s start with the story of Captain Jack Sands, an American Prisoner of War held in Vietnam’s infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Captain Jack was held captive for 7 years in a 6’x6’ cell. He was unable to leave his cell or communicate with any other prisoners. To keep from going insane, he would visualize himself playing golf in an imaginary, yet very detailed golf course. As time progressed, his daydreams became more vivid.

Now here’s the kicker, when he eventually returned home from the war, his golf game actually improved.

I’ve heard this story a few times, but it came up again while I was reading The Red Circle: My life in the Navy Seals and how I trained America’s deadliest Marksmen by Brandon Webb. The Navy Snipers had invited Olympic Shooter /Author Lanny Bassham to share his methods in improving the skills of America’s Elite. Lanny Bassham had already trained generations of Law Enforcement and Military in methods that involved positive reinforcement and visualization. These were techniques learned from both experience and from Captain Jack Sands.

Now, two things came to my attention at this point. First, if it supposedly works for the best, it was worth taking a look at.

2nd, I had a 100 Mile run coming up that I would be undertrained for. I had been working 60 hours per week for months and my schedule showed no sign of easing up.

To add pressure, both my brother and I had already DNF’d this race, so now it was a question of honor. There could be no postponement and failing would not be an option. This race had to go on and I had to finish whether I was ready or not.

So, it was a long shot, but I’d have to try visualization.

This is how I travel
This is how I travel

I knew that at a minimum, I could train for an hour a day. So, I started by printing out the maps and learning what I could. I began a routine of closing my eyes on the elliptical while imagining myself running the EC100. By running portions of the race, I could smooth out details like my pace, heart rate, time of day, how I would feel, when I would eat and how long I could keep a certain pace.

In an Ultra, as in life, if you don’t do the math in your head you may find out that your dreams won’t add up.

Going over the run in my head allowed me to smooth out the kinks long before race day.

Even though I hadn’t been as physically conditioned as before, when race day came both my brother and I went the distance and completed the 100 mile race (which you can read about here)

There is no doubt in my mind that my mental training had worked.

What about other runners?

Vanessa Kline at Kodiak
Vanessa Kline at Kodiak

We wanted to see if any other runners were applying visualization type tactics to their running, how they were doing it, if they recommended it, and what advice they would offer. We reached out to ultra runner Vanessa Kline for her insights.

Vanessa has run 50 marathons, 12 ultras, and is the owner of Beast Pacing. Last year she was 2nd place female at Kodiak 100 and will be returning to compete this year.

When asked if she applies visualization to her running, she enthusiastically replied that she does. Vanessa stated that she tries to anticipate how she will feel, visualizes herself winning, going through the course and overcoming any problems that may arise.

She even tries to anticipate the pain and warned, “You have to be aware that the PAIN TRAIN is coming BEFORE it comes, because anything that bounces hurts… Visualize where you will be, how you will feel. Run the race in your head many times before you set foot on the course.”

She added that she believes it has improved her performance. Sometimes she hasn’t been in the best of shape, but visualization has given her a strong heads up. She’s found that although things do change, they mostly play out like she had imagined.

Even as the owner of Beast Pacing, which finds runners to pace marathons all over the U.S., she has applied the same tactics to her business. She’s always thinking ahead, picturing where she will go next and always dreaming.

Vanessa Kline at Lake Tahoe Marathon
Vanessa Kline at Lake Tahoe Marathon

Should You apply Visualization to Your Running?


This may have been more anecdotal, but there is nothing to lose by trying and applying your own methods.

Brandon Webb stated that when the Navy Seals were first approaching the idea of visualization, they thought it was going to be a bunch of feel good type nonsense. However, they noticed tangible results in their cadets and recruits.

If anything, it’s worth exploring.

For similar reading about training for ultramarathons check out Mental Hurdles Running 100 Miles and Train For Pain .

My Best,

Justin Flores

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