My recent posts have dealt with two linked themes. On the one hand I have speculated about ‘natural running’ characterised by harmonisation of a kinesthetic sense of where one’s limbs are in space, with well-practised movements dictated by the laws of physics and biomechanics. On the other hand I have returned to my recurrent theme of the apparent conflict between the fact that running requires the generation of large forces yet conscious effort is often counter-productive. The muscular actions that are required for getting airborne and repositioning the swing leg are largely automatic, and best left to the non-conscious control system in our brain. Attempts to impose conscious control create a risk of mistimed or excessive force that is not only inefficient but also risks injury. If we are to perform at peak level, the challenge is to achieve a conscious overview of the non-conscious control system that harmonises our rational planning with automatic action.
There is indeed a well known mental state in which this is possible – the elusive mental state popularly known as the Zone. It is a state with four principal characteristics: complete focus; harmony within oneself; total confidence and the experience that performance is virtually effortless. It is the state most clearly seen in top-level tennis. It is the state that allows a player to spring sideways with racquet outstretched to make a cross court shot that skims a few centimetres above the net and raises a cloud of chalk dust from the line in the far corner of the court. There is no way that such precision of motor control could be achieved by conscious control. When a player in is in this frame of mind he simply knows he going to win.
Running in the Zone
Running in the Zone is less dramatic but the feeling can be as powerful. I was reminded of this by Wilson Kipsang’s seemingly effortless victory in the London marathon a few days ago. Though actually it was his performance in Frankfurt last October that evoked more powerful memories for me. I watched this video clip of the final two Km of that run in which he came within a few seconds of the world record, set only a few months earlier in Berlin by his countryman, Patrick Makau. Watching Kipsang’s lithe and powerful legs while I listened to the German commentator brought back a personal memory of an event over forty years previously. The magic was enhanced by my limited understanding of German: good enough only to allow me to appreciate that the excited yet controlled voice was reeling off the passing kilometres, and the minutes and seconds that indicated Kipsang’s progress towards Makau’s world record time of 2:03:38. But my lack of full appreciation of the commentator’s words heightened my awareness of the power and elegance of Kipsang’s gait. To my eyes, he was the archetypical illustration of a runner in the Zone. As in London, where he missed the count-down for the London course record by a few seconds, in Frankfurt, he missed the world record by a similar amount despite the shower of tickertape and flashing lights as he crossed the finish line.
Small town glory
For me, it evoked a memory of much humbler surroundings. As I have mentioned before, in my younger days I could reasonably have been described as a sub-elite marathon runner, but as a track athlete I was an ‘also-ran’ with limited talent, prepared to run any event, from 400m hurdles to 3000m steeplechase or 5000m, as required to earn points for my club.
I won less than a dozen races in my entire track career. The most memorable was a mid-week evening 10,000m on the old Adelaide Harriers cinders track. As described in a previous post, it was a low key meeting but offered one of the few track 10,000 races in the local athletic calendar. I arrived straight from work only just in time to line up at the start, without even time for a warm-up. From the gun I was running confidently and harmoniously. Within a few laps I was calmly confident that I would win – though in fact I had never previously run a 10,000m on the track and had no realistic knowledge of what lay ahead of me. I was simply running effortlessly with all-embracing focus, complete harmony within myself and with calm confidence. As the laps slipped by, I continued to run harmoniously and virtually effortlessly. Even the sprint over the final 300m felt more like a celebration than a challenge. I have no record of my time. It remains my lifetime best as I have never had the opportunity to race 10,000m on the track since, but the memory of the race matters more than a record of the time.
The following Saturday, I lined-up for the 5000m in the local interclub series. The field included most of the top 5000m runners in South Australia at that time, but that mattered little to me. My goal was to win points for my D grade club and for this my placing among the A grade competitors mattered little. Nonetheless, some of the aura of the previous Wednesday night still cling to me, and as the leaders jockeyed for position in the home straight with a little over one lap to go, I was in fifth place, on the shoulder of the current state 5000m champion. Although the pace was a little faster than the 10,000m pace a few days earlier, again I was running harmoniously and almost effortlessly. Up to that point the thought of winning had not even occurred to me, but suddenly it seemed possible. With a little over 400 metres to go, I surged to the front. The sound of the bell and the sight of the open track curving away to my left as I entered the final lap remains as clear in my memory as the event at the Adelaide Harriers track the preceding Wednesday evening. I was oblivious of the runners behind me as I rounded the bend and sprinted along the back straight. It was a wonderful feeling, but of course it was too good to last. With 180m to go the state champion slipped by, and in the home straight I faded to finish in sixth place. I did of course secure maximum points in the D grade competition, so sixth place was more than was required of me.
In the minds of the leading runners jockeying for position as we approached the final bell, I would have scarcely warranted a second thought. So I was delighted when the state champion came up to me afterwards and said: ‘You started your run too soon but I couldn’t just let you go. You looked too dangerous.’ To know that I had even appeared to be a threat is a pleasing memory, but even more satisfying is the mental picture I still retain of sound of the tinkling bell and the sight of the clear track ahead as I led into the last lap. Perhaps if Ihad held off my sprint for another 100m I might have finished even nearer the front but I have no regrets for having seized the moment when I did.
These memories are largely nostalgia for times long ago, but I did enjoy a minor reprise of the feeling of being in the Zone on my way to victory in the second division of East Midlands Fetch Challenge mile three years ago. Nowadays, I step onto a track only occasionally. However I do still cherish the experience of running in the Zone.
The elusiveness of the Zone
One of the paradoxes of the Zone is that if you focus too much on being in it, you cease to be a detached observer of your own mental and physical state, and the Zone dissolves. It is an elusive mental state that cannot be grasped too tightly. Being in the Zone is not in itself the primary goal. However provided you can allow your conscious mind to trust the non-conscious control system in your brain to look after the fine details, it is possible to do things beyond the capacity of your conscious mind. I believe that my few fleeting moment of ‘small-town glory’ on the track many years ago were a product of this state Of course no mental tricks can make up for lack of strength and aerobic fitness. But if you want to run at the limit of your physical capacity, I think it is a crucial element.
If one examines carefully the various descriptions of his mental state provided by Usain Bolt, the theme that emerges most strongly is mental focus. Here is his response to Desmond Howard’s question: How about during the race? What do you see? What do you hear?’, in an interview for ESPN. ‘The first 40 or 50 meters, I’m aware of almost everything because that’s the weakest part of my race, so I always check immediately if I got a good start. Maybe after 20 meters, I check again — trying to tell myself to keep my technique right. I look around a little bit, but I don’t really hear the crowd much over 100 meters because I’m so focused.’ His mental state during the acceleration phase is dominated by intense focus but his description does not convey the sense of effortless harmony and self confidence that characterises the Zone. A man of his physique has to work hard to get his long legs and large frame up to speed. Video recordings show his torso rocking from side to side as he strains to push against the ground. His own account confirms this picture. But once he is at top speed his stride length is an advantage, and everything fits into place. Watching the cruising phase in video recordings of the 100m final in Beijing, the World Championship in Berlin in 2009 or many other races during his period of world domination everything about his demeanour conveys a sense of effortless, harmonious self-confidence. He is a picture of a runner in the Zone.
It is noteworthy that Bolt is aware of the weakness of his acceleration phase. It is a weakness that arises from the physique that serves him well later in the race. In part, he is the world’s fastest sprinter because he is has the capacity to perceive his own weaknesses. Being in the Zone does not replace the need for strength, skill or, in the case of endurance running, the need for aerobic fitness. It reinforces these things and is reinforced by them. It is a mental state that allows us to exceed the capability of our conscious mind. If Bolt can achieve harmonious mastery of his own huge frame in that first 40 metres, he might release the latent skill that will take another 0.03 seconds off his time.
I believe that a factor of key importance for any runner who aims to run as well as they possibly can is the ability to create the circumstances that open the door to the Zone. Developing this capacity is as important as building aerobic capacity, strength and skill. As a result, the goals of each training session includes not only enhancement of some aspect of aerobic capacity, strength and/or skill but also specific attention to cultivating the ‘present-centredness’ that is the foundation of the Zone.
Because of the Zone defies capture, the goal of Zone-oriented training is not to achieve the Zone, but simply to create the circumstances that allow it to happen. My own experience suggests there are five key elements.
- The first is body awareness. The goal is subliminal awareness of every part of the body, but I find it most helpful to focus mainly in my thumb and forefinger as each arm swings down to my waist, in turn. The action is not forceful but it is firm and precise.
- The second element is relaxation of muscle tension. The light pressure of thumb against forefinger allows my non-conscious brain to calibrate the tension in my arm and the opposite leg optimally, while I also direct attention to relaxing my shoulders.
- The third element is harmonising my breathing with the rhythmic movement of arms and legs. Not only does the depth of breathing and ratio of breaths to strides provide me with a sensitive measure of where my effort level is in relation to my anaerobic threshold, but the awareness of the rhythm acts to stabilise this rhythm and enhance the sense of calm detached conscious observation of my non-conscious motor control system in action.
- Fourthly, I aim for a feeling of lightness. Largely this is based on conscious awareness of the impact of my feet on the ground. I am subliminally aware of, and from time to time overtly attentive to, the way in which the load is distributed over the arch of my foot during stance, as I observe the light sound of my footfall.
- Finally I cultivate an awareness of the rapid forward swing of the leg from stance. This is entails a mental image of a graceful arching trajectory rather than a deliberate contraction of any particular muscle group, though my understanding of biomechanics suggest that iliopsoas does most of the work, facilitated by recoil of the Achilles tendon at lift-off, and a light contraction of the hamstrings.
More recent memories
My ability to sustain present-centredness was tested in an interesting way a week ago. The riverside paths on which I run are fairly popular with people walking their dogs. Most days I encounter at least a dozen or more dogs, and over the course of each month I can expect to meet several hundred animals of varying breed and temperament. In the open spaces along the riverside, most dog-walkers release their charges from the lead, so it is not surprising that from time to time I am chased by some poorly trained animal. Usually I stop and point to the ground while saying in a firm voice: ‘Stay!’ In most instances this is at least moderately effective, except with little yappy dogs, whom it is best to simply ignore. However last week as I ran along the banks of the Trent with a pleasing feeling of relaxed harmony, I found myself the quarry of a Great Dane. Great Danes have a lineage that extends back to their original breeding from wolves for use in wolf-hunting, but generations of domestication have made them reasonably docile and they rarely exhibit a strong prey drive. However this fellow appeared to have identified me as prey. As he would have stood at least 7 feet tall on his hind legs, I doubted that I would sounded very authoritative if I stood my ground and commanded ‘Stay’.
The memory of a similar experience as I ran along the banks of the River Soar a few miles from it confluence with the Trent a year ago, flashed into my mind. Shortly after passing an unfriendly-looking Alsatian prowling along the bank, I was aware of a flurry of movement behind me and the beast leapt to grasp my wrist in his jaws. The power in those jaws was terrifying. I did not know what to do, but on impulse, I kept running. Mercifully he opened his jaws within a few moments and to my surprise, let me go. After I had put a few hundred metres between myself and my attacker I stopped to inspect the damage. Apart from the lacerations where the teeth had gripped my forearm, I was unharmed.
So here I was again, in a similar situation. This time the dog was even bigger but he hadn’t yet sunk his teeth into me. So I just kept running, trying to create an impression of calm confidence. I continued to focus on opposing my thumb lightly against my forefinger as each arm swept down in turn towards my waist, to facilitate a neatly timed, relaxed footfall. I was aware of the dog’s jaw impacting with my ankle but he didn’t get a grip. I was also aware that my heart thumped in my chest. As I continued running with an outward appearance of calm, I could hear a distant female voice calling. It was apparently the dog’s owner, and he abandoned the pursuit. I had no wish to invite any more trouble so continued on my way.
Later in the day when I examined the recording from my heart rate monitor I was both dismayed and amused to see the record of how my heart had responded. The relevant segment of the record in shown in the figure. There was a dramatic paroxysm in which my heart rate fluctuated crazily for about 10 seconds, but then settled back into a regular rhythm, just a little faster than before the attack. Within half a minute it was back to its usual level. While the heart trace demonstrates that I did not succeed in maintaining a perfectly harmonious physical and mental state throughout, it appeared I had done reasonable well in recovering my equilibrium. I will never know just how intent the dog was on bringing me down, or indeed whether he was merely issuing a warning as the Alsatian had a year earlier, but I am pleased to know that I managed to remain calm and fairly confident with scarcely a perceptible adjustment of my stride.
In summary, if one wants to run at one’s best, establishing the ability to create the circumstances that facilitate this centred harmonious, virtually effortless and confident mental state is a crucial complement to the tasks of developing aerobic capacity, strength and skill. Many of my most memorable running experiences over the years have been associated with this magical zone. I hope that even as my strength ebbs with the passing years I will still retain ability to evoke this state.
I believe that many great athletes, among them sprinters such as Usain Bolt but also marathon runners such as Wilson Kipsang, have the knack of summoning this mental state. Whether or not Kipsang will achieve it again in London in October this year is not certain, but as I watched that video of his run in Frankfurt, it appeared to me almost certain that sometime within the next year or two he will eclipse Patrick Makau’s world record.