I'll believe it when I see it: Visualising a faster, stronger you

Visualisation and mental imagery is a proven performance-enhancer at the peak of the performance pyramid, but rarely used by amateur cyclists. Until now, that is, as all it takes is five minutes a day. If it’s good enough for a Tour de France legend…

“I visualise a lot and it’s a very positive mindset. At the bottom of Angliru [a brutal climb in Spain with sections that peak at 20%] I’m already visualising those last few kilometres, hoping others are on the limit, seeing it as an opportunity rather than, ‘Bloody hell, this is going to be tough’.” The words of Chris Froome soon after becoming just the third rider in history to win the Tour de France/Vuelta a España double back in 2017.

For the Brit, by picturing the battle ahead, he’d prepared himself for victory. It’s a psychological technique used by male and female professionals alike, all seeking the real-world benefits of laboratory studies that show visualisation boosts endurance, fires up strength and refines technique. And it’s one that should be employed by recreational riders, too. Once we dig a little deeper, of course…

Picturing perfection (for you)

“Visualisation involves realistically imagining yourself competing in the way you would wish to perform,” says Dr Martin Turner, reader in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University who specialises in human performance under pressure and adversity. Turner’s also worked with a number of elite sports teams and individuals. “Importantly, it’s the mental simulation of a specific action without any corresponding motor output. So, you imagine your physical performance without actually physically moving or performing.”

“I can ride faster without riding outdoors in the pouring rain and chilling cold,” you retort? “I’ll have a slice of that.” Sadly not as visualisation’s designed to complement your cycling not replace those mentally upsetting sessions. But if you devote a small chunk of time to strengthening your mind about what lies ahead, it will pay dividends. 

“Broadly, by imagining a competitive situation as realistically as you can (including sights, sounds and feelings), the brain starts to respond in a similar way to if you were actually facing that competitive situation,” Turner explains. “If you’re able to ‘see’ what you would see in an actual competition, ‘hear’ the same sounds and ‘feel’ the same things, then you can recreate the mental and physical responses that are experienced in actual competition. 

“In turn, the feelings of control and composure will feel very real and will boost your confidence for that specific situation. In other words, if you want to be confident, motivated, controlled and composed when you ride, then imagine being so. Think of it as creating a mental blueprint of how to ride well – a dress rehearsal for the opening night.”

Boost confidence, increase motivation, reduce anxiety and control your emotions – if imagery came in pill form, big pharma would make a killing (before you dust off your violins, big pharma are getting by. In 2022, the eight biggest US pharmaceuticals reported profits of $10-billion domestically on revenue of $214-billion. As you were…)

Chris Froome prepared himself for Tour victory through visualisation (Image: SWPix.com)

Not just for races

Like dogs and Christmas, visualisation’s not solely for preparing for races. That’s the view of Noel Brick, lecturer and researcher in sport and exercise psychology at Ulster University and keen endurance athlete (he’s completed more than 30 marathons and ultra-marathons). 

Like Turner, Brick’s also worked with numerous athletes and is convinced of its benefits in many different scenarios. “You can use it to picture yourself riding safely and swiftly in a group of riders,” says Brick. “Or you can use it for motivational purposes, picturing for you what a successful ride and outcome might look like.” 

“But for me, one of the most useful uses of imagery for a cyclist is imagining the sensations, the perceptions, the emotions that we might experience during any ride, be it in training or racing, and dealing with those,” Brick adds. “If you know there’s a climb, you know it’s going to be tough, which can lead to a maelstrom of negative emotions. So, how will you deal with those unhelpful emotions if you to start to lose touch of your competitor as you ascend? What will you ‘say’ to yourself to keep in touch?”

This brings into focus ‘self-talk’, too, which works hand in hand with visualisation. Again, it’s heavily about managing your emotions in stressful situations albeit through positive mantras. We won’t delve too deep into the minutiae here but, for now, know that positive self-talk – “I’ve put the effort in, I can climb this hill” – is much more impactful than negative self-talk – “I’m really struggling with this climb. It’s beyond me…”

How do you visualise effectively?

There are two key methods of integrating visualisation into your 2024 cycling armoury, which you could term ‘passive’ and ‘active’. There’s the traditional method that many Rouleur readers might already be aware of where you might be sitting or lying down at home, with eyes closed and imagining yourself, say, taking a tough downhill corner sharply, safely and fast. Over and over again.

A famous example of this in sporting circles is from football – or soccer for our US audience – and the pre-match ritual of Wayne Rooney. The retired striker once told reporters, “Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what colour we’re wearing – if it’s red top and white shorts with white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to create a ‘memory’ before the game. I don’t know if you’d call it visualising or dreaming but I’ve always done it.”

It clearly worked as the now manager of Birmingham FC in England’s Championship tops the goalscoring charts for Manchester United (253 goals in 559 appearances) and is second behind Harry Kane for England (53 goals in 120 appearances).

“The other method is employing visualisation while you’re riding, so picturing yourself taking a false flat nice and calmly, for example,” says Brick. “This ties in with PETTLEP…” The PETTLEP model of imagery lays a framework for the effective implementation of imagery interventions. This acronym stands for: Physical, Environment, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotion and Perspective.

The PETTLEP model is based on findings from sport psychology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. PETTLEP conceptualises physical practice and imagery as being on a continuum and posits that the closer towards the physical end of the continuum that imagery interventions lie, the more effective they are likely to be. For example, an intervention that involved an ice hockey player standing and assuming the correct position will be a closer representation of physical practice than imaging whilst lying down.”

Visualisation could help you get over the finish line first (Image: SWPix.com)

That’s the academic precis from a paper entitled, ‘Perfecting practice: Applying the PETTLEP model of motor imagery’, penned by sports psychologist and PETTLEP co-creator Dave Collins. I had the fortune of interviewing Collins for a football book I wrote several years back (Training Secrets of the World’s Greatest Footballers, if it’s of interest. It wasn’t to many – the royalties remain absent) and in fruitier language described the lengths he went to in devising PETTLEP. 

“I worked a lot in judo. I’d have the fighters undertaking puke-inducing anaerobic sessions that’d leave them right on the edge. Then, when they were walking back to their corner, I’d have them ‘image-fighting’ their most feared opponent, the one that they’d have to push themselves to the edge to beat. This makes imagery more vivid and the benefits greater. But there’s no right way of imagery.”

Supported by neuroscience

Collins sees visualisation as “the Swiss Army Knife of sports psychology – there are loads of way to do it”, but the neurological aim is the same. Back to Brick. “There’s research that shows premotor areas of our brain – so the areas of our brain that plan our physical movements – are similarly activated when we imagine an experience as if we’re doing it for real. This is one of the things that makes imagery so powerful – the parts of our brain are reacting as if the experience is actually happening. 

“It’s the same idea as how you might respond to a vivid dream. You might wake up, your heart is beating rapidly, you’re sweating and all because you might have sprinted hard to stage victory at the Tour!”

Imagery’s impact on the physical act is highlighted by a classic sports-psychology video, which in this case used the traditional method of visualisation. It’s of Great Britain’s Steve Backley, who won successive Olympic medals between Barcelona in 1992 and Sydney in 2000. Before Atlanta in 1996, an Achilles injury put him out of action for three months. He didn’t even pick up a javelin but still won silver, thanks in no small part to working with hypnotist Paul McKenna. 

“They spent a lot of time on visualisation,” Brick explains. In fact, so much that Backley reveals that they broke down his perfect throw into a 6.23-second duration. In his mind’s eye, he’d work through the throw, picturing himself in real time, running and projecting that javelin. He used all of his senses – the interoceptive ones, the proprioceptive ones – and created a militant routine. Again and again and again he’d practise. His daily mantra became ‘see it’, ‘feel it’ and, arguably most importantly, ‘trust it’. 

Incredibly, his opening throw sent him into the lead, albeit his grip on gold was short-lived as still world-record holder Jan Zelezny (a frankly ridiculous 98.48m set earlier in 1996) leapfrogged him after his second throw. You can watch Backley recall the impact of visualisation here. It’s only 6mins long and worth a watch.

Ride like children

Froome’s not the only high-profile Brit rider to reveal their use of visualisation – Mark Cavendish touched upon his use of visualisation in Issue 116 of Rouleur earlier this year. “I remember going to Steve Peters, a sports psychologist who worked with Great Britain. A lot of people went and the big thing was about visualising.”

It’s hard – nay, impossible – to quantify the impact Peters and visualisation had on Cav’s palmarès. What’s clearer is that he certainly saw the benefit before it was filtered and formalised through an academic and adult lens. “When I was growing up, I’d often imagine going up the Champs-Élysées and sprinting. That’s visualisation without being told you need to visualise. I just naturally did that. I was imagining being a pro and being in the races… it’s imagining your dreams, but it’s still visualisation.”

To that end, a young Cav imagined the roads of the Isle of Man as cobblestones and himself as Johan Museeuw, the three-time winner of the Tour of Flanders. His young son Casper has followed in his father’s tyre marks. “He’s obsessed with cycling and he’s constantly talking to himself,” Cav continued. “He’s imagining a situation. He knows the riders; he talks about what they’re doing… he comes and tells me how his race just went. It’s an imaginary race but in his head it’s happened. That’s what I did; it’s visualisation.”

Mark Cavendish has touched upon visualisation throughout his career (Image: SWPix.com)

In many ways, visualisation is about letting your imagination flow, about throwing off the manacles of adulthood and releasing your inner child. Which begs the question, are some cyclists better at visualising, at mental imagery, than others? “Absolutely,” Brick replies. “Some people can imagine really vivid scenarios and really vivid scenes when they use imagery. Others, like me if I’m honest, often just see a dark, hazy image. There are actually scales that measure your ability to ‘mentally imagine’.

“It’s why although we often call it ‘visualisation’, it’s really about other sensations, too – the sounds, the feelings, the physiological feelings and the emotions that might go along with a certain sporting scenario. That’s why many psychologists tend to use the term ‘imagery’ rather than visualisation.”

Which brings us back to the PETTLEP model. “You’re not just building in the visual part but the sounds, the feelings, the emotions, all those kinds of things can make our imagery experience much more powerful,” says Brick. “For me, I’m better at imagining the physical sensations and emotions of an event. For instance, if I’m in a race, behind and chasing hard, I can quite easily imagine the emotions associated with that, even though I might struggle to capture the scene.”

Recon and reflect

Still, Brick’s imaginary blind spot is cured somewhat by technology as, in the modern era, this visualisation’s (virtually) more real than ever before. For those of you who use the likes of Zwift, at your fingertips you now have access to the toughest climbs, like Alpe d’Huez, where you can accurately feel the gradient, intensity and effort changes as you battle with the 21 switchbacks. Google Maps is another popular tool to break down and feel important parts of the ride, as is VeloViewer.

“The more you can immerse yourself in a course, the better,” says Brick. “You can learn every turn, the sections that require more effort or less effort, things like that. With that, you’ll ‘feel’ it more and have confidence that you can control your emotions come the real ride.”

“It worked for Jacques Villeneuve,” Brick adds. “He finished second overall in his first season of Formula One [1996] and learned many of the details of each track via his PlayStation. Braking lines, sharpness of turns… it all helped.” 

It did, albeit he went one better the following year for his one and only world title, suggesting that imagery’s even more effective if you have experience on your side. “There’s certainly a case for that,” says Brick. “From my own experience, I’ve run this one marathon several times. The first time, I didn’t really study the course map properly; I’d heard from friends about this mountain, around 21 miles in, but I didn’t have a plan to deal with it. It nearly broke me.

“I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. The second time, much of my mental preparation focused on that mountain. I know I won’t feel great at that point but what will I say to myself to manage that? How will I handle the unpleasantness that I’ll endure at that time? 

“So, part of my preparation for that second marathon was, in my mind, both at home and on training runs, imagining I was on that mountain. I’d really picture the suffering and focus on things to help, like simple self-talk strategies. ‘Keep going,’ I’d tell myself. ‘Get to the top of that hill. You can do it.’ My favourite mantra is, ‘Every uphill has a downhill.’ I’d repeat it over and over until it became habitual. So, when I was in that marathon, my reactions were more positive, more engrained, and I handled it much better.” 

How much do you need to practise?

Which brings us closer to the visualisation finish line, namely how much is enough? Like your skeletal and cardiac muscle, your mind benefits from consistent imagery training. For Brick, “There’s research that suggests a sweet spot for the duration of an imagery session is about 30 to 40 minutes. Any longer that and mental fatigue could become a real issue. But you really don’t need to do it for that long. Consistency is more important.” 

Which is why Turner’s approach might be more realistic to the recreational rider. “Mental preparation is one of those processes that’s ideally part of your daily routine. Just like physical skills, visualisation can be difficult to master, so dedication is needed to learn how to use it. At the start, try five minutes per day. Then as you become more skilled in visualisation, go a bit longer. Eventually you will use visualisation all the time and not even think about it.”

Which makes right now the ideal time to start mentally preparing to improve your cycling performance. It might be for futureproofing your performance by bolstering emotional defences to a key climb at your goal race, or something more pressing like learning to ride without fear and flaccidness through the rain. Like Backley, repeat after us, “See it, feel it, trust it.”

Shop now