Many sports fans these days seem to know that Tiger Woods imagines his shot before he plays it. Boxers often imagine winning and knocking out their opponent. Many Olympic athletes imagine the ideal shot, goal or win before they complete it.

Early on in 2012 I imagined crossing the line at my fifth consecutive marathon, and when it happened, it was almost identical to how I had imagined it… Today, I start to write on the subject of opening up the door to our imagination to help advance our athletic performance.

What do we actually mean when we talk about mental imagery then? Murphy (1994) states that imagery is a process by which sensory experiences are stored in memory and then are recalled and performed when there is no actual external stimulus.

Imagery is used by athletes of varying kinds with a range of applications and although it tends to get assumed that we’ll all benefit from using it, not everyone benefits from using mental imagery techniques. The reason being that not everyone using mental imagery techniques use them well or with enough persistence to gain the benefit. Research does show us that repeated, persistent use of mental imagery used properly will lead to impressive gains for athletes.

Research studies and evidence show that skill development, self-confidence, emotion control, pain relief, and arousal levels can all be beneficially influenced using mental imagery (Martin, Moritz & Hall, 1999; Murphy & Jowdy, 1992).

Mental imagery requires understanding for it to be most effective, it needs to engage as many of the sense as possible and it requires persistence rather than being treated as a one-off quick boost of some kind if it is to be most effective.

The runner using mental imagery in the preparation for a marathon for example, might imagine himself running powerfully and at the perfect pace. He smells the fresh air around him, hears the crowds cheering and clapping, watches other runners around him jostling and bobbing up and down. When the start gun goes off, he resists the urge to sprint too fast, keeps his cool and gets to his race pace and finds a road position with plenty of room as he gets into the zone. He feels his legs striding strongly and his arms pumping.  The senses are engaged and the mental preparation is in detail in the mind.

Two Main Theories Of Mental Imagery:

How exactly does using mental imagery result in gains for athletes then? There are two main theories that are adopted in the majority of the psychology literature on the subject.

Firstly, there is the psychoneuromuscular theory first written about by Jacobson (1932). This theory suggests that by imagining and mentally rehearsing an activity of some kind, the motor pattern of that activity gets duplicated, albeit less so than if actually doing the activity. If we talk in neurology terms, this neuromuscular activation is believed to develop responses in the motor cortex of the brain. This has been referred to as muscle memory by many authors since Vealey and Greenleaf (1998) coined the term.

A 1972 study by Suinn examined the activity of muscles in skiers legs while they imagined skiing downhill. When they imagined it, the electrical patterns in those muscles was almost the same as if they had actually been skiing downhill. Since then though, attempts to replicate support for this theory have fallen a bit short. Some evidence has suggested that this theory is not consistent across all kinds of muscular activity, with higher levels of activity being more likely to respond to the imagination (Feltz and Landers, 1983).

What’s more,  other psychological research has suggested that the responses to mental imagery are more to do with the central nervous system operations than actual muscular activity (Kohl and Roenker, 1983). It is the opinion of many in the field therefore that the muscular responses to mental imagery may not be the actual reason of enhanced performance.

The other main theory of mental imagery and how it works is that of symbolic learning theory first explored by Sackett (1934). This theory suggests that imagery effects are actually more to do with the athlete having the opportunity to practice symbolic aspects of a motor activity rather than actually activating the muscles.

This theory then suggests that the mental imagery forges a so-called “mental blueprint” which the athlete uses when performing.

Further evidence of this theory has shown that mental imagery works best for activities requiring a lot of cognitive involvement (Ryan and Simmons, 1981) which may suggest that mental imagery is likely to suit golfers and darts players more than runners. Also though, this theory suggests that early stages of learning anything new are much more cognitive that the latter stages and so suggest that mental imagery will have more of an impact in the early stages of developing and learning your sport.

There are number of other theories and alternative notions for how mental imagery is effective, but knowing those theories are not really going to benefit a runner any more than that which I have mentioned already. Some theories contend imagery helps us believe we are capable, and thus advances our belief in ourselves and our ability to master our sport. Other theories suggest that we are prepared for more eventualities as a result of having imagined them, others believe of a somatic response to the imagery which prepares us for the event and helps motivate us by imagining how it feels when we succeed and yet other theories believe our skill levels are enhanced by mental imagery in a variety of ways. Some mental imagery processes are believed to help advance cognitive processes when performing by mentally rehearsing and all of these notions are prevalent within the field of therapy that I work in and I see the benefits of these things on a daily basis.

For us, the most important thing is that mental imagery is used by successful athletes and is shown to enhance performance. For example, a comprehensive analysis of 60 mental rehearsal studies by Feltz and Landers (1983) found that mental rehearsal was better for the athlete than no rehearsal at all. Weinberg (1981) in another similar review of the subject also stated that mental rehearsal used in conjunction with regular physical training was more effective for the athlete than just physical practice or mental rehearsal alone. It makes sense therefore to include it as part of any training regimen.

There are a number of ways in which athletes can use mental imagery techniques, and not just for mental rehearsal. Many athletes successfully use mental imagery for the development of skills (runners can mentally imagine their technique, for example), for the development of cognitive strategies (mentally rehearsing how you use your cognitive strategies when actually running), building the healthiest levels of motivation for races and training as well as developing mental resilience (overcoming adversity, being persistent etc).

I wanted this to give a good case for the use of mental imagery as a valuable tool for runners. Lots of my blog entries involve mental imagery techniques and lots of the processes coming up in future weeks will involve mental imagery applications of varying kinds.

Next up, I am going to share with you a guide for how to get the very most from mental imagery use if you are a runner or an athlete or sports person of any kind.


Felt, D. L., & Landers, D. M. (1983). The effects of mental practice on motor skill, learning and performance: A meta analysis. Journal of Sport Psychology, 5, 25-57.

Hardy, L., & Callow, N. (1999). Efficacy of external and internal visual imagery perspectives for the enhancement of performance on tasks in which form is important. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32, 95-112.

Jacobsen, E. (1932). Electrophysiology of mental activities. American Journal of Psychology, 44, 677-694.

Martin, K. A., Moritz, S. E., & Hall, C. R. (1999) Imagery use in sport: A literature review and applied model. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 245-268.

Murphy, S., & Jowdy, D. (1992). Imagery and mental rehearsal. In T. Horn (Ed.), Advances in sport psychology (pp. 221-250).

Paivio, A. (1985). Cognitive and motivational functions of imagery in human performance. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 10, 22-28.

Sackett, R. S. (1934). The influences of symbolic rehearsal upon the retention of a maze habit. Journal of General Psychology.

Suinn, R. (1972). Removing emotional obstacles to learning and performance by visuomotor behavioral rehearsal. Behavior Therapy, 3, 308-310.

Vealey, R., & Greenleaf, C. (1998). Seeing is believing: Understanding and using imagery in sport. In J. M. Williams (Ed) Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance.

Weinberg, R. S., The relationship between mental preparation strategies and motor performance: A review and critique. Quest, 33, 195-213.

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