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Imagery techniques require you to picture yourself completing your goals – and could be more effective than simply getting motivated.  

Have you ever set a fitness challenge that was very swiftly given up on? Whether it was signing up to a gym, lifting a certain weight or crossing the finish line of a race, it can often feel impossible to stick with your goals.

New research shows that the answer could lie in functional imagery training (FIT), a type of psychological goal setting that managed to get non-runners across the line of a 50k ultra marathon. 

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The research, by Dr Jon Rhodes and his team at the University of Plymouth, found 31 people who said that they wanted to improve their fitness and they underwent motivational interview techniques – a widely recognised technique for positive behaviour change. 15 of these people went on to say that they would be interested in completing an ultra marathon. Seven of those people were assigned FIT, while eight continued with motivational interviewing. Of the seven who underwent FIT, all started and completed the race. Of the other eight, only four started and two finished. 

The functional imagery technique took people from non-runners to ultra marathon athletes.

What is functional imagery training?

Unlike other forms of motivational thinking, FIT works by making you realise your commitment to the goal. “Motivation is like a dimmer switch,” Dr Rhodes tells Stylist. “It can be really bright one day, a bit lacklustre the next, then up or down again. Commitment is an old school light switch; you’re in or you’re not.”

FIT aims to help you be in – properly in – by “thinking beyond the finish line. It’s about knowing why you’re doing it in the first place. In the study we got people to elaborate on why they wanted to do the marathon, such as the charity they’re looking to support or the family members they want to improve their health for. Underscoring goals with an emotional link builds a bigger picture around the training.” 

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That doesn’t mean it has to be deep. If you want to run a marathon just to say you’ve run a marathon, you can still use FIT. For example, one participant in the study pictured the conversation they would have at work on Monday morning to get them through difficult points in the race. They visualised the staff room, holding a coffee in hand, the smell and the taste of the drink, and how they’d answer questions about the challenges from their peers.

“That conversation has meaning beyond the task – it involves inspiration, awe, accomplishment, and often ends with the participant imagining an important question being asked by the colleague: what’s next?” explains Dr Rhodes. 

How to use functional imagery training to meet your goals

After finding your reason to commit, what happens? You can’t just manifest crossing the finish line of a 50k race having never trained – can you?

“In the study, we didn’t give anyone running advice or plans, because we knew that if they were committed enough they’d go off and Google it,” says Dr Rhodes. So no, you can’t just get strong enough legs and impressively improve your endurance by thinking about why you want those things. You actually do need to train. The good news is that FIT can make you more likely to stick with the training by changing your self-talk.

“When self-talk starts, imagery starts. So if you start thinking, ‘Why the hell am I doing this thing when it’s raining and snowing and I’d rather be back in bed?’ you’re going to start picturing your bed. Switching that to images of the race or the outcome you want puts you back into the bigger picture,” says Dr Rhodes. 

FIT can be used for any physical goals.

He suggests thinking about a time after the race that complements your purpose. Imagine the room you’re in, the emotional connection you feel to the people or the achievement, and the conversations you are having about what you did. Maybe you are in your office kitchen, sipping coffee and feeling proud. Or perhaps it’s immediately after you nail a PB in the gym and your coach is hugging you with pride.

Then it’s about simply persevering. “We know that physical changes don’t noticeably happen until the fourth month, but the motivation decreases after about 12 weeks,” Dr Rhodes explains. So, even if you don’t think you’re ever going to be fit enough to complete whatever goal you’ve set, you really do need to stick with it. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as practical manifesting – dreaming about your goals but with an action plan and purpose. 

Images: Pexels/Getty

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