Archive for April, 2018

Creating the Zone

April 3, 2018

The Zone is that magical state in which running seems almost effortless. When it descends upon you, it feels like a state of grace bestowed by Hermes, the swift-footed messenger who could effortlessly outrun all other Olympian gods.   Hermes was also a cunning trickster, and his gift cannot be taken for granted.  The exact nature of the state of mind and brain that facilitates this magical experience remains unknown. Nonetheless as outlined in my previous post, neuroscience has revealed many factors that play a part.

These include the endocannabinoids that are released during exercise. Endocannabinoids are analgesic and create a sense of euphoria. They interact in a complex manner with the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which mediates the experience of reward, and plays a key role in the learning of patterns of behaviour.  The relevant neural circuits connect the frontal cortex, limbic system and basal ganglia.   While the interactions within these circuits that mediate the experience of the Zone appear to be subtle and complex, there is little doubt that these circuits can be trained.


Neurons that fire together

In recent years it has become clear that in general brain circuits are far more adaptable, even in adult life, than had hitherto been recognised.  One of the earliest indicators of this plasticity of the adult human brain was provided by Eleanor Maguire’s demonstration that London taxi drivers have an increased amount of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus, a part of the limbic system that is engaged during spatial navigation.    For our present purpose, it is crucial to note that in those days, London taxi drivers spent several years learning the layout of the streets of London to qualify for a cab-driver’s licence.  Subsequent brain imaging studies have confirmed that intense practice of various motor skills (such as juggling) and cognitive skills (such utilizing material maintained in short term memory) leads to an increase in the amount of grey matter in the brain regions engaged during those activities.

Many details of the molecular mechanism by which neural pathways are strengthened are known. It is a process known as long term potentiation (figure 1).  When a signal is transmitted across the synapse connecting one nerve cell with the next one in the circuit, it not only results in the onward transmission of the electrical signal, but also sets in train a series of chemical events in the receiving nerve cell. Those chemical events lead to an immediate increase in the efficiency with which the synapse can transmit signals and also to the transcription of DNA to produce proteins that produce long-lasting changes in the strength of the connection. The delineation of this process in recent years has confirmed the speculation of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, in his book, the Organization of Behaviour, written in 1949.  Hebb proposed that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’.


Figure 1. Neurons that fire together wire together. An incoming electrical signal releases a transmitter molecule (glutamate) into the space between the nerve endings. The glutamate binds to an AMPA receptor on the surface of the receiving neuron, changing its shape allowing the flow of ions. The electrical a potential changes, thereby transmitting the electrical signal to the receiving neuron. The change of potential also expels the blocking magnesium ion from the NMDA receptor. Calcium ions flow inwards and initiate a series of chemical events that make the synapse more efficient in both the short term and also the long term. 


The implication is that if we wish to strengthen a particular skill we need to practice that skill persistently. The converse is also true: if we practice the relevant activity in a counter-productive  manner we will strengthen the counter-productive pattern of brain activity.  What is the right way to develop the circuit that facilitates the experience of the Zone, and what is the wrong way?


The Central Governor

Tim Noakes concept to the central governor provides a clue to the right way and the wrong way.    According to Noakes, our brain creates a sense of fatigue that causes us to restrict our involvement in a demanding exercise when the cumulative signals for the body about our metabolic state, indicate that we are approaching our limit.  But as anyone who has sprinted at the end of a marathon despite feeling almost overwhelming fatigue with a mile to go knows, the governor is far too conservative.   Perhaps in prehistoric times, when food supply was uncertain and our forebears needed conserve reserve fuel to escape from an unpredictable predator, their glucose-dependent brains learned to set the governor conservatively.  Our forebears did of course have an over-ride mechanism: the adrenaline system could dramatically reset the governor’s limits in case of emergency.  We too can utilise adrenaline to reset the governor during a race, but in a long race, too much reliance on adrenaline is damaging.  A better strategy is to train the brain in manner that resets the governor, and delays the onset of fatigue.  We need to reframe the experience of effort when running: rather than perceiving effort as fatiguing or painful, we need to perceive effort as satisfying, even perhaps exhilarating.


How do we do this?  The first thing is to develop thought patterns that engender confidence.   Grandmothers’ wisdom tells us that nothing succeeds like success. In more recent times, the psychologist Martin Seligman has developed an approach to building resilience based on Positive Psychology.   His Mental Resilience Program is currently employed by the US military to produce mental toughness in soldiers. Modern neuroscience confirms that during challenging tasks, confident individuals who engage areas of the medial frontal cortex more effectively outperform individuals who do so less effectively.  If two athletes have identical aerobic capacity and efficiency, the one who believes he/she will win will almost certainly be the winner.

Perception is more important than reality.   In fact pessimistic people generally tend to see the world as it really is.  Freud famously remarked that only depressed people see the world as it really is, and much subsequent evidence has proven him correct.  But we function better with a self-reinforcing positive bias.  Nonetheless Positive Psychology is not merely about telling yourself you will win.  We are not so easily fooled.  We need to acquire the habits of optimistic thinking.  Optimistic thinking focuses on the specific details of the experience rather than overgeneralization and self-defeating prediction.  We need to train hard and give ourselves due credit for success in achieving our training goals, while identifying the specific problem when we fail to reach the target we set.

In particular, we need to frame challenges in terms of Albert Ellis’s ABC model: C (emotional consequences) stem not directly from A (adversity – e.g, the sensation of shortness of breath) but from B (one’s beliefs about adversity).   In dealing with the A’s  we need to learn to separate B’s—heat-of-the-moment over-generalised reaction to the situation (“I’m a failure”)—from C’s, the emotional consequences generated by those thoughts (“I cannot maintain this pace” is replaced by “I am breathing intensely; I’m running powerfully”). Then move on to D; dispel the fear of failing.  There is no need to abolish negative thoughts and emotions entirely.  Identify their source. Once you have given a negative thought a name, your brain can cope with it more successfully.  We need to build the sense that we are in control of ourselves; our thoughts and emotions.



I find that it is very helpful to focus specifically on breathing, during both training and racing.  Start with awareness of breathing; then relate breathing to footfall as this promotes controlled breathing.  I find focus on arm swing is also useful: the brain programs whole movements rather than single muscle contractions. The brain nonetheless devotes more processing resources to arm and hand than to leg and foot.  Our brain readily links arm movement to leg movement; we can enhance this link in our brain by practicing the focus on arm swing while being aware of footfall. I think a firm down/back stroke of the arm promotes a strong drive in the second half of stance that is associated with rhythmic breathing.

However do not expect to be able to focus on all of these things at once without practice. It took several years before I could focus on these things in a relaxed confident manner. Do not get tense if you cannot focus on everything.  Find what you can focus on comfortably and aim for a relaxed focus on this.  When you are in the appropriate confident relaxed state time seems to expand to accommodate the events you are attending to.

I learned these aspects of mental focus long before mindfulness became popular.  However when the technique of mindfulness emerged into popular culture in recent years, I found the key aspects of mindfulness came easily – probably because I had developed those skills when running. Conversely, it is likely that acquiring mindfulness skills will help you to apply these techniques when running.  Brain imaging studies demonstrate that mindfulness produces changes in functioning of the insula (figure 2), plausibly promoting constructive awareness of internal reactions ‘in-the-moment’.


Insula and Limbic system

Figure 2: The insula and limbic system. The insula lies in a fold of cortex hidden between the medial temporal lobe, containing the amygdala and hippocampus, and the deep grey nuclei. The insula mediates the interaction between sensory perception, thought and emotion.



Whatever specific strategies work for you, you need to practice them repeatedly in every training session. You will build brain circuits that can sustain a mental state that is confident and in control in all circumstances.  When Hermes smiles upon you, you will find yourself in that transcendental state in which you are running powerfully with minimal effort and no sense of fatigue.