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Low on motivation to move right now? Then it might be time to try functional imagery training – the thought technique beloved by professional athletes and sports psychologists. Here’s how to use it.

If you’ve ever wanted to harness the mental toughness of elite athletes like Emma Raducanu and Laura Kenny, you might be in luck. Psychological techniques like functional imagery training (known as FIT) are used by sports psychologists to help athletes reach their potential. But a recent study by the University of Plymouth found that motivational intervention through the two key components of FIT — motivational interviewing and visual imagery techniques — can help us mere mortals too.

The study turned self-professed non-runners into ultramarathon runners and found that with FIT training, a person is five times more likely to overcome an extreme sporting challenge than without. Here, we’ll unpack exactly what FIT is, and how to use the technique to turn up the dial on your training, even on those miserable Monday mornings. 

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What is functional imagery training?

According to Dr Jon Rhodes, leader of the Plymouth study, FIT is: “In a nutshell, an interview session in which we add visual imagery at critical points.” By combining a well-known counselling technique called motivational interviewing (a sit-down conversation that guides interviewees to find their own answers to reaching their goals) with visual training, the study helped participants realise their aim of completing an ultramarathon.

For the interviews, experts asked questions like: ‘Why is completing this race important for you and your values? How would this impact you in a year’s time? How could it inspire people?’ 

“Questions like this helped to add a sense of purpose to their training, and led them to commit to their plans long term. When you know your identity, who you are, and your purpose, you are able to sacrifice more and persevere under pressure,” Dr Rhodes tells Stylist.

But motivational interviewing is only half of FIT. Co-author of the study, Karol Nedza, tells us: “Motivational interviewing is what we use to get the fire going. But when you are out on hard runs, it can be tough to keep that motivation up. Imagery is like a muscle that you train and use on a regular basis.”

Imagining yourself crossing the finish line, picturing yourself on race day and out on training runs in as much realistic detail as possible is at the core of this technique. “Our study participants were asked questions like: ‘How does it feel on your run? What is your heart doing? What sounds are around you? What is the smell? Can you taste the sweat on your lips?’” says Dr Rhodes.

Visual images help in the hardest moments when you are stuck in negative self-talk, and according to the experts, are the secret to long-term success.  

How to use FIT to reach your fitness goals

We don’t all have the luxury of a trained sports psychologist on hand to guide us. But both Rhodes and Nedza say we can all use elements of FIT in our own training plans, especially if we are gearing up for a big event.

Step 1: Ask yourself the right questions

To do a form of motivational interviewing on yourself, Dr Rhodes says there are a few key questions it’s important to ask. So open your notes app or pick up a notepad and pen, and get answering the following:

What is my purpose?

“Ask yourself what the bigger purpose to your training is. Does this training go beyond you somehow? When you run past your mum, is she going to be proud of you for persevering? Are you going to inspire your kids or even your future grandkids? How could this race have an effect that is larger than you?”

What is my meaning?

“To find your meaning, you should ask yourself why this race or fitness goal matters to you, personally. How does it relate to your intrinsic values? Why are you doing it? If purpose is about doing something for others, meaning is about you — is it important to you?”

Am I ready to do this?

“Are you ready to start right now? Maybe this isn’t the right time for you, and that’s okay. Be understanding with yourself about whether you are ready for this goal or not. Being motivated and committed are two different things and if you aren’t ready, if you aren’t able to prioritise this goal, you can’t give that commitment.”  

Step 2: Train your visual imagery muscle

To teach yourself the trick of visual imagery, the experts recommend using a technique they call LAP which stands for:

L: Locating your cue

A: Activating your imagery

P: Performing

Locate your cue

Pick a cue that will help you think about your selected image. That means choosing an action in your day to which you can attach your imagery training. Ideally, you should choose a cue that you use multiple times a day, like boiling the kettle or pouring a glass of water. 

“In the military, when they fill up a water bottle and wait for the water to go in, they use that time to activate their imagery and see themselves clearly completing their goals,” explains Dr Rhodes. You can do the same to make visualising your goals a part of your daily routine.

Activate your imagery

“As your water goes into your bottle, you can quickly run through your imagery by asking yourself: what is my purpose? Why am I doing this absolutely dire training?” says Dr Rhodes. “Then you’ll think — ah, it’s because I can see myself down the line,” he adds. 

“Envision your end goal, see yourself crossing the finish line in as much detail as possible using all your senses. What can you smell, see, hear, taste, and feel in your body? Ask yourself what you need to do right now to get there. Do you need to hydrate more? Focus on your gait? Do you need to push yourself a little more when you are in those dark places?”

Perform

“Now it is time to do something. Make immediate plans or take immediate steps to make sure your next training session happens.” Dr Rhodes explains that it’s not enough to wait until you wake up, unmotivated, in a warm bed to visualise yourself out on a run: “Using imagery means thinking about tomorrow’s run today, while you are sat there drinking a cup of coffee. What can you do today — or right now — to prepare? Put the washing on? Lay your clothes out? The excuses are generated today for tomorrow.”

By using these techniques, Nedza explains that anyone can rekindle the commitment needed to keep going. “With visual imagery, you remind yourself you need to work on your goals, that you’ll feel amazing when you are running your race. The technique is all about amplifying your motivation, but ultimately it creates the resilience you need to complete your goal.” 

Feeling motivated? Then hop over to one of our workout videos which are designed to get you stronger and better prepared for whatever fitness goal you’re aiming for. 

Images: Getty

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