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From couch to ultra-marathon: mental imagery in race completion

Using a behavioural change imaging technique, a group of non-runners was successfully brought to ultra-marathon fitness standards, found a small British study.

The study, led by the University of Plymouth, started by examining the motivation of 31 non-runners who wanted to get fitter, by giving them a recognised behaviour change technique, often used by counsellors, known as Motivational Interviewing (MI). Participants were then left for five months to do whatever they presumed would benefit their fitness and health. After this period all were contacted and asked if they would consider completing an ultra-marathon.

Fifteen of them expressed interest in attempting an ultra-marathon as they continued to improve their fitness. Seven were randomly assigned Functional Imagery Training (FIT), while eight continued with just MI.

MI is a technique where a counsellor supports someone to develop, highlight and verbalise their need or motivation for change, and their reasons for wanting to change. FIT builds on MI, as it teaches clients how to elicit and practice motivational imagery themselves, with participants encouraged to utilise all their senses to visualise how it would feel to achieve their goal.

Of the eight participants in the MI only group, four started the race, and two finished. Meanwhile, all seven of the FIT group started, and six finished, showing that those assigned to the technique were five times more likely to complete the challenge.

While researchers acknowledge the small population size, the study, published in the Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity, adds to the growing body of evidence that FIT can significantly reinforce a person's motivation to complete a challenging goal.

FIT has also previously been shown to boost weight loss, with another Plymouth-led study showing that overweight people who used it lost an average of five times more weight than those using motivational interviewing alone.

Developed at the University of Plymouth, FIT is a unique approach to behaviour change that uses mental imagery to motivate change. It teaches people new ways of thinking about their immediate future to help them stay motivated as they achieve each small step towards their goal, with users describing it as a “mindset shift”, where they exercised because they wanted to, rather than feeling they had to.

For example, at difficult points in the race, a participant in the new study, a teacher, pictured the conversation they would have at work on Monday morning: visualising the staff room, holding a coffee, imagining the smell and the taste, talking about the challenges with a peer, then using this self-developed image to imagine the feeling at the finish line, as they go from little exercise to ultra-athlete.

Lead author Dr Jon Rhodes, who has worked with professional athletes to improve their resilience, said: "An ultra-marathon requires a huge amount of mental, as well as physical, strength, even from people who run regularly. Trialling Functional Imagery Training on historically self-professed non-runners was a real test of its efficacy, and to see that it made a difference was a promising finding.

"It shows that multi-sensory imagery is the key difference between those who reach the starting line and then go on to finish, and those who do not, showing it is critical to maintaining changes and pushing the boundaries of physical and mental performance."

Professor Jon May is one of the co-creators of FIT, and co-author on the paper. He added: "FIT is based on two decades of research showing that mental imagery is more strongly emotionally charged than other types of thought. It uses imagery to strengthen people's motivation and confidence to achieve their goals, and teaches people how to do this for themselves, so they can stay motivated even when faced with challenges. We were very excited to see that the intervention helped people to complete their ultra-marathon, and look forward to seeing further studies on the effectiveness of FIT as a motivational technique within sport and beyond."

Study details

From couch to ultra marathon: using functional imagery training to enhance motivation
Jonathan Rhodes, Karol Nedza, Jon May, Thomas Jenkins and Tom Stone

Published in Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity on 16 August 2021


This study evaluates ultra-marathon runners’ use of goal-setting, self-talk, and imagery as strategies to help them through the challenge of long-distance running.

In stage one, 31 self-professed non-runners were recruited and received motivational interviewing (MI) in a group setting, examining their motivation to get healthy. In stage two, five months later, participants were asked if they would consider running an ultra-marathon, and fifteen (M age=39.47, SD=5.84) agreed. At this point participants were randomly split into an MI or Functional Imagery Training (FIT) group. FIT teaches participants how to master goal centred imagery by controlling attention and elaboration. Groups received similar contact hours and completed four measures that assess grit, resilience, self-efficacy, and imagery ability at baseline and after the race.

We found no significant differences between measures for finishers and non-finishers or between groups or over time. However, the likelihood of completing the ultra-marathon was five times as likely in the FIT group, than in MI (RR=5.25). Grit and resilience scores were strongly correlated. By receiving FIT, there was a significant association (p=0.04) to complete the ultra-marathon.

FIT is a relatively cost-effective method to increase exercise adherence through multi-sensory elaboration of goal setting and overcoming barriers or challenges.


University of Plymouth article – From couch to ultra marathon: using functional imagery training to enhance motivation (Open access)


Full study: From couch to ultra marathon: using functional imagery training to enhance motivation Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity (Restricted access)
See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Motivational techniques can improve performance


Why some people can’t stop running, according to sport psychology


Acute exercise improves mood and focus, reduces stress


Sense or purpose will add years to life


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