Running in The Zone has to be one of the most satisfying experiences. When it all fits together it can seem effortless and intensely rewarding. But why are some runs better than others? Is there anything we can do to help ourselves get into The Zone? Here is a personal account of one of my most memorable runs.
I hadn't intended to go for a run following a ten miler the day before. But it looked such a beautiful summer's evening I was tempted to get out for a three, maybe four mile jog. Following a warm-up I headed out at around eight o'clock. I wasn't disappointed. It was perfect evening for running with a light fresh breeze, warm air and the birds singing.
I headed off down the hill and started my checklist ? jaw is free not tight; I'm aware of my skull sitting on top of my spine and I've not stiffened my neck; my shoulders are relaxed and my arms swing freely from their ball and socket joints; I'm allowing the air to enter my nose and letting the ribs move into the gap between my torso and arms. I think 'light arms' to open up the muscles in the upper back to keep my upper body poised. Next I apply awareness to the space where my hips joints are and allow the legs to swing freely from these points. I maintain all of these thoughts as I allow my lower legs to fall and bounce back from the road giving me a lift right back up to the top of my head. That's it! The hand break is off. A sudden lightness and simultaneous feeling of release and elation tell me I'm there. I'm now in the zone. I pass the first mile mark ? a turn in the road.
I have consciously reached the zone by removing all the obstacles that prevented it happening. Because it was a conscious process that brought me here I am able to consciously maintain it.
Seemingly without effort, the hedgerows begin to flow by faster as I get a lift from the road's surface. I keep up with my thinking, I call it 'interactive awareness', but it's easier now as once there it requires no effort to maintain ? its all encompassed in one thought.
Another two, three then four miles pass by and my pace is good. Perhaps slow by some standards but for me its fine; in fact it doesn't really matter at the moment. I turn off the main road and start a climb of about half a mile. I consciously check for signs of my old habit of getting set to climb the hill. My face is free, no facial expression required to try harder in anticipation of this fairly steep section. I allow my arms to open up a little to increase the swing and imagine my head is releasing forward and upwards to lead my body up the hill. As the gradient gets steeper I become aware of a greater push (ground reaction force) and allow it to propel me up the hill as I keep my knees released so my lower legs stay swinging. My breathing has increased but I maintain an 'upness' and soon see the top of the hill.
Once over the brink I slow my pace a fraction and let the air flow into my lungs. With the hill out of the way and my breathing recovered I start to think about increasing speed. I hold this thought for a moement to prevent any inappropriate effort building up. Not too long ago this action would have brought my shoulders up and my head back as I pushed the pace. Now I just keep my shoulder and hip joints free and become aware of the direction my elbows and knees are moving. Even though I have followed this procedure thousands of times before, I still get a lift from seeing it in action. With little perceived effort I am now moving much faster. I have about a third of a mile to go downhill. I check that I'm not braking in fear of falling over ? again another old habit. Letting go of my legs and keeping the hip, knee and ankle joints free I release and let gravity bring me down the gradient.
Dark clouds are gathering but the evening sun is still peeping through a slit in the horizon bringing a reddish tint to the cornfields on either side of the road. A warm light rain begins to fall and I get a picture of Gene Kelly singing in the rain. I feel his joy and there is 'a smile on my face'. I pass the old barn with the rusty green tractor and know that's seven miles. In another half-mile the road forks; the right one takes me home in about a mile; the left fork opens up more options. On some of my previous runs there would have been no debate as the short route home is very tempting. Tonight there is no question of ending it so soon and I head left taking me away from home. I don't care about planning out any directions because at the moment I feel I could run all night.
I guess I've now covered about ten miles and start to feel the first signs of fatigue. I run though my checklist again to find my shoulders have lifted a fraction and I have collapsed a little in the torso. With this realisation I am able to release the shoulders, release my arms and return to a lighter state as my breathing opens up again.
I reach a crossroads and know it is three miles from home if I turn right; five miles if I go straight over; and God knows how far if I turn left. I make an informed decision and turn right, after all I don't want to spoil this evening my pushing myself too far. The last three miles are a joy, partly due to maintaining an efficient style but mainly because I know I'm nearly home where a well deserved cool drink and bath are waiting. The rain has stopped and I can just see the sun starting to sink below the horizon. I arrive home and stay on a high until I go to bed.
This is why I run. Not for glory, not for achieving personal bests, its for times like this when everything comes together creating a feeling like no other. I'm fully engaged, being in the moment, enjoying every moment. This is living consciously in the here and now where I have total control and nothing can stop me.
Roy Palmer is a Teacher of The Alexander Technique and author of The Performance Paradox: Train Smarter to enhance performance and reduce injury. More information can be found at http://www.artofperformance.co.uk. He works with sports people of all abilities to recognise and overcome performance-limiting habits.