Andy’s Quick Hits (74): From Couch to Ultra Marathon with Mental Imagery

Andy Hab
3 min readAug 27, 2021
Photo 121852826 / People © Pavol Stredansky |

On first glance I thought the above headline was fascinating. I am a sports person, look into the neuroscience of motivation, and have been in the “motivational” space for nigh on two decades.

On second glance I wondered why such an old technique was grabbing the headlines — mental imagery has been around for decades.

But let’s first get into this recent piece of research because is is fascinating and shows the power of mental techniques. Interesting most of all because it is a scientific analysis and not the usual anecdotal stories that flood the motivational literature.

So what did the researchers from the University of Plymouth find?

First off they first found 31 non-runners who wanted to get fitter and put them through a Motivational Interviewing (MI) intervention. A methodology often used in counselling to explore, develop and verbalise their need for change. These were then left to their own devices for 5 months.

They were then contacted and asked if they would consider completing an ultra marathon (50km+). Out of the 31, 15 expressed an interest. These were then assigned to two groups. One group again went through an MI intervention and the other group went through an MI intervention plus a mental imagery process — called Functional Imagery (FI). This involved imaging in sensory detail near future outcomes.

What was the result?

This is interesting because both groups had what is considered standard technique that has proven to be effective to a degree — Motivational Interviewing and the difference was the Functional Imagery.

Well, from the first group of 8 runners who had MI, only 4 started the race, and 2 finished. Arguably still not bad because running an ultra marathon, starting from zero is an immense achievement. But when we look at the second group of the 7 who had Functional Imagery all 7 started and 6 finished the race. This is an amazing difference!

Andy Hab

The brain and human behaviour, in business, society, learning, and health.