It works for you but it does not make sense to me: How to use exercise imagery in a meaningful way

By Fredrik Weibull

You are running on a muddy trail in the forest. The rain is pouring down and you are completely soaked while keeping a high tempo. You have been exhausted for the last 20 minutes and you do not really know how but you keep pushing yourself forward. Your thighs, shoulders and calves are burning and you are now running up a steep hill. With rapid and powerful arm movements you are helping your legs carry you upwards, forcing yourself up the hill using maximal effort. You have three more miles to go and you will keep this pace. There is no alternative. Keep moving forward, fight!

How do you feel when reading this scenario? One might read itand think “what an idiot, why do that to yourself?”, while another one might think “Wow, I would like to be there right now, testing myself and pushing my limits”. What is cool about imagery is that the same image can affect two people in two completely different ways.

Images affects you whatever you do, whether you image yourself successfully taking a penalty in football, giving a presentation at work, cleaning your home or completing a workout in the swimming pool. In this blog post, I am going to focus on exercise imagery.

Exercise imagery
Exercise imagery is a very common self-regulation strategy and it is used by both people who rarely exercise and people who exercise vigorously every day. Exercisers image everything from how they want to look when they are fit to feeling refreshed and proud after an aerobics class. They use it to motivate themselves to exercise, increase their belief that they can perform a difficult routine and to experience more enjoyment during exercise. Research has shown it is possible to use imagery to increase your barrier-self efficacy, improve the quality of your motivation and improve your feeling states in relation to exercise.

When you image something it will affect you in positive ways.  These changes can range from being very subtle but to very noticeable. An image can make you happy, upset or motivated. How you are affected by it depends on how well you can create the image, how you interpret the image and what meaning the image has for you. Now I will provide you with some thoughts and tips on how to make your images more meaningful.

How to make your images more meaningful
It is only you who can decide if your images are meaningful for you in a specific situation and if they have the desired effect. There are different things to consider when you are trying to make images more meaningful for you.

A good place to start is to think about what you want to gain from your imagery use. Let us say that you want to use imagery to push yourself harder during a gym session. What images comes to mind? Can you use these images and work from them. Maybe you see and feel yourself pushing yourself really heard, your are exhausted but keep fighting or you image yourself reaching one of your performance goals (e.g., run 10 kilometers in under 40 minutes or swimming 500 meters without resting).

If the image motivates you, image it again and reflect on how it makes you feel. Can you perhaps add something to it that makes you even more motivated? Perhaps image hearing a specific music track while exercising, image sweating or feeling powerful. Play around and try different alternatives.

Embed from Getty Images

Think about what makes you push yourself harder during the next gym session. Maybe you can use this behavior, these cues and feelings in your images. Write them down so you do not forget them. Image it there and then so that you learn how to image it when it is fresh in your mind. Rehearse it again after the session and again when you get home.

One good rule of thumb when using imagery is to include the same details in your image that you want to experience in the specific situation. For example, when you cycle you perhaps focus on how your legs feel powerful and that you are maintaining a smooth and consistent pace. When imaging cycling try to focus on these details. However, the twist here is that it should still feel meaningful for you. Maybe this does not make it feel more meaningful. Maybe it feels more important to focus on maintaining a good cycling position and to focus on the sounds the bicycle makes in your images.

If it feels real and lifelike but perhaps annoying or useless, it is probably not the right image to use for you. Or perhaps you are not using it in the right way. Maybe you need to image it during a longer duration.

It is good to consider that some things require practice. If you learn a new golf swing you will not have good results straight away, you may need thousands of swings before it feels right and you can execute it correctly. The same goes with a new image. Maybe it is difficult to image it during your first tries, maybe you include too many or too few details and maybe it takes some time before you get used to the idea of that image. Be patient.

I suggest that you evaluate your images after your workout. Did they have the desired effect? Think about what worked, what did not work, and adjust your images the next time.

If you used an image that helped get you off the sofa and into the gym? What was that image? Write it down. Perhaps you can use it again.

Please add your comments below to let me know how you use imagery when you exercise and what do you do to create meaningful images.

Interested to know more? Here is a good book chapter. You can also join us for our upcoming imagery workshop on how to improve imagery ability and to write imagery scripts.

About the author: Fredrik Weibull is a doctoral researcher in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Birmingham. He also works applied with performance psychology in both sport and business. Talk to him on Twitter: @FredrikWeibull

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6 thoughts on “It works for you but it does not make sense to me: How to use exercise imagery in a meaningful way

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