Visualization, Adrenaline and Sleep Problems

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Visualization is amazing; there’s no question about it. And there is a phenomenal amount of information available about visualization on the internet (Google “visualization” and you get 19.3 million hits). However, there seems to be absolutely no information about a crucial way in which visualization can go bad. It can steal your sleep.

As you no doubt know, visualization is supposed to be good for almost everything, including developing and improving skills, becoming better under pressure, better concentration, improving test preparation, etc. The idea is that when deeply concentrating, your brain can’t tell the difference between visualizing an activity, and performing that activity. So all of the body’s system (other than actually moving your muscles) can get involved in an activity that only takes place in your brain. You can imagine how useful this can be in so many area.

But visualization goes way beyond just skill mastery. Among the other many uses, it’s also good for getting to sleep. There are hundreds of sites that talk about this. The key concept is this: stress increases your body’s adrenaline response, which inhibits sleep, while relaxation decreases this adrenaline response. This is why for the purposes of getting to sleep, you should visualization relaxing places, like a walk in a forest, or a stroll along a beach. Soothing things. Listening to Zen music helps for the same reason.

But if you want to do visualization for sports, then you want to do pretty much the opposite. You want to visualize your chosen activity from beginning to end, including the competitive aspects. For swimming this means visualizing your start, underwater, breakout, turns, etc. INCLUDING racing your competitors and can include winning the race. As you can imagine, this is the opposite of relaxing. Racing involves intense focus, fatigue, pain. And adrenaline. Lots of adrenaline.

Assuming you are not getting ready for bed, or driving a car, or performing open heart surgery, try this experiment. Visualize a race, let’s say a 100 m butterfly in a 50 m pool (details are important when visualizing). You’re in lane 4, with fast competitors on either side of you. Now begin with visualizing stepping up onto the starting block, the start, 7 underwater dolphin kicks, a strong breakout, and then the swimming using powerful strokes and your breathing pattern. Imagine that you’re even with the people on either side at the first wall. You nail the turn and 7 underwater kicks and come out slightly ahead of the person on one side, but even with the person on the other side. You can feel you’re a little tired and winded, but it won’t slow you down. Your competitor pushes hard and you can sense they inch ahead. You push hard and catch up, and then with 5 metres to go you put your head down to take those last powerful strokes, reach for the wall, and… you win!

Now, if you can visualize well, then you’ll find your body has responded to this exercise. You may feel your pulse rate has increased slightly, your heart beating stronger. Perhaps even breathing slightly faster.

OK, now try to imagine yourself trying to immediately fall asleep.

That’s the trap. We’re told to visualize our races often. To “play the movie” as Bob Bowman tells Michael Phelps. And we hear that Phelps plays that movie many times a day, including a few times before going to bed. But how does he do that??? My heart rate was elevated just typing out that visualization.

So here’s the problem. It is so easy to get caught up in visualization, or day dreaming, or imagining we’re Bill Murray in Caddy Shack, “The crowd goes wild!” But if we do this close to bed time, or even worse, in bed trying to sleep, then we’re in trouble. Our adrenaline is pumping, making sleep hard to achieve.

So what’s the answer? Since I have no idea how Phelps can visualize a race without invoking an adrenaline response, my answer is that we should NOT visualize races or swimming against a clock close to bed time. We can visualize individual skills, such as a start, a turn, etc, but not in a competitive environment. And most definitely not a visualization that involves making a qualifying time, or setting a record. Visualize those during the day. Save the calmer visualizations for the night.

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