Many athletes like to “psyche up” as part of their precompetition ritual, but does this really make a difference? And is one psyching-up method more effective than another? According to new research, imagery—visualizing oneself performing a task to the best of one’s ability—seems to be the most effective approach, at least for running sports.

In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2014; doi: 10.1519/ JSC.0000000000000373), investigators from the National Center of Medicine and Science in Sports in Tunis, Tunisia, found that experienced competitors who engaged in 30 seconds of imagery before an event performed better in both the 10- and the 30-meter sprint.

Preparatory arousal, a method of charging up for maximum performance by getting aroused and pumped up, was as effective as imagery for improving performance in short sprints up to 10 meters, but not as effective as imagery in the 30-meter distance. Both techniques worked better than applying attention or distraction methods.

“These findings highlight how essential it would be for athletes to incorporate psyching up into their [preseason] workouts which can then translate into effective acceleration,” noted study authors.

Bottom line: Appropriate psyching-up strategies can contribute to optimization of a runner’s performance.