How to Use Visualization to Improve Your Swimming

A lot goes into your races. There are countless laps, hours in the pool, and too many early mornings to count. When we think about the fact that races are decided by fractions of a second, it becomes even more critical to find a way to get ahead of the swimmer in the lane next to you.

Visualization, or guided imagery, is a very powerful tool that you can add to your arsenal to further improve the likelihood of success at your next competition. By mentally rehearsing your race in your mind you are “hard wiring” the performance into your brain. By the time you step up on the blocks, you have already executed the race so many times that the physical race is just a re-enactment of the mental exercise you have been doing.

Here are 5 ways to that visualization can help you swim faster:

1. Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect, But It Will Make You a Lot Better!

Visualization should be treated as a skill, not a band-aid for a last minute lack of preparation. Doing it well requires you doing it often. Fortunately you can do it just about anywhere, anytime (though preferably when not driving). You can do it at night in bed, in the back fo the car, on the bus, when you are stretching before practice, and so on.

Do it consistently, a few minutes a day, as opposed to banging out one long session every couple weeks. The more you do it the easier it will be to imagine an outcome that you desire, as well as keep a lid on outcomes you don’t want from popping in there.

Speaking of which…

2. Avoid Negative Conclusions.

This seems obvious, but you and I both know what it is like to have our thoughts run away from us. We start out imagining the best possible outcome, but then those awful and nagging little cracks of doubt begin to tear open our positive outcome. What if my bathing suit falls off? What if my goggles fill up? False start? I leave early on the takeover?

Similarly, you might find at first that you are having difficulty keeping a rein on your thoughts. You find a quiet place, close your eyes, imagine your race in full detail, but soon you catch yourself thinking about your homework. Or what you are going to do with your two days off practice next week. Or whether Rick will ever go to war with the Governor and simply stop talking about it (Walking Dead reference for the uninitiated).

Each time this happens, reset, and focus on the details to make the image clearer in your mind.

3. It’s All In the Details.

Sure, you could imagine yourself winning a race or destroying that personal best time over and over, but to take your visualization to the next level you should be focusing on 4 areas—

  1. How it Looks. The look of the water. The officials on the pool deck. Anything you can see.
  2. How it Sounds. The sound of starter’s pistol, the roar of the crowd, water splashing past your ears.
  3. How it Senses. This is different from ‘how it feels’, because we are talking about physical sensations. The briskness of the water. The snugness of your cap. Your goggles digging comfortably into your eye sockets. Gripping the starting block. The thickness of the water in your hand. The relaxation of skimming across the water. If you can sense it, picture it.
  4. How It Feels. An overlooked part of visualization that can make it really stick is connecting the images, sounds and senses to your emotions. The exhilaration of catching the leader. The rapt joy of touching the wall and seeing a time on the scoreboard even faster than you hoped. The happiness resulting from the pride of your coaches and teammates. Incorporate the emotive responses of success and it will make the visualization much more “sticky.”

With these four components in place you will be building imagery that is more powerful, more visceral, and even more “hard-wired” into your brain.

4. Imbed Cues.

You don’t have to imagine everything from scratch. There are things you can experience or sense prior to your race. Get up on the block and see how to the block feels. Listen carefully to the starters pistol. The roar of the crowd. File these sensations and use them later for your visualization efforts.

5. Create a Launch Program.

As mentioned above, visualization is a skill; a skill that should be incorporated into your preparation as much as stretching or warming up. The power in visualization is that by experiencing the race repeatedly before hand, when you finally do dive in there’s nothing left to really think about. Your sub-conscience has been here before and re-enacts it.

As mentioned earlier, you should be doing a little bit of visualization every day, particularly in the weeks leading up to your competition. In my racing days I would bang out a good 5-10 minutes (time permitting, of course) of visualization about 10 minutes before my race. In addition to the 15 minutes or so each night in the couple of weeks leading up to the competition.

Of course, you don’t need nearly as long — 1-2 minutes can work just as well if you are doing it correctly. Put a towel on your head, some music to block out the people around you, and imagine yourself achieving your goals.

Create a routine for yourself and make it part of your race preparation.

So there you have it, five powerful (and easy!) ways to implement the massive power of visualization into your swimming. Now, I am off to watch the Walking Dead series finale!

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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