How to Get Into the Running “Zone”

In the movies, James Bond leaps in the Aston Martin, cranks it to life, floors the ignition, and disappears in a cloud of burning rubber.

In real life, few people over 18 would treat a car like that. Modern cars don’t need much warming up, but they do need some. Here’s the advice of the Car Talk guys:

Unless it’s below freezing, cars don’t need to be warmed up at all.

Driving them gently is the best warmup there is. If it’s 25 degrees out, you might want to let it warm up for 30 seconds. If it’s 10 degrees out, warm it up for a minute. If it’s 10 degrees out, move somewhere warmer.

Drive gently for the first five minutes or so in the morning. If you live one minute from the freeway, don’t floor it on the entrance ramp and jump right into the passing lane. Take it nice and easy.

This has to do with getting the oil heated up so it coats and splashes well. That’s the real reason for warming up your car. Also, don’t “rev” your car while it’s warming up and especially right after you crank it.

There’s not much in a car that needs warming up – just the oil.

The human body is different. Even considering the body strictly as a machine, it’s way more complex than a car.

Moreover, a human being isn’t only a body. Science has shown that body, mind, will, and heart are inextricably connected. Our thoughts and feelings impact the body, for good or ill.

So before flooring the accelerator on your body, it’s a good idea to warm up those other parts, too. And the evidence suggests that it’ll seriously help your running.

I suspect some people are “fast warmers.” I have a friend who can go from a dead stop to running at a brisk 75-80% of max heart rate instantly, without apparent unease. I can’t do it. Recently, my friend and I ran for an hour together, and I got some insight into why it works for him.

John is happy and good-humored. I’ve never seen him get emotionally upset. He’s aware of others’ realities, and relates to them with unaffected kindness. When we run together, other runners are always smiling and saying hi to him.

My theory is that John doesn’t have to warm up his heart very much, because he keeps it warmed up all the time.

In fact, there’s science to support the notion that a “happy heart” makes running easier. Researchers at Heartmath Institute studied the effects of positive and negative feelings on “heart rate variability” (HRV).

HRV is a bit difficult to understand at first. In rough terms, it’s a measure of how erratically the heart “changes speed.” The heart “shifts gears” constantly, and the more erratically those shifts occur, the less efficiently the heart can do its work.

Think of a car that’s running out of gas, lurching forward and dying erratically before it finally stutters to a stop.

The Heartmath people discovered a direct connection between HRV and positive and negative feelings. Simply put, the more we harbor positive feelings, the more smoothly and efficiently our hearts work. Conversely, the more negative feelings we have, the less efficiently the heart beats.

What this means for runners is that positive feelings are incredibly important, because they allow the heart to work harder without strain.

In fact, the Heartmath scientists have found that when a person experiences deeply positive feelings such as love, kindness, etc., the heart’s electrical power output jumps by over 500 percent.

A wonderful thing about these findings is that we can put them into practice immediately. In fact, I’ll make a bold statement. Some people might consider it outrageous, but I’ve experienced it too often to remain unconvinced. Here goes: “The more positive you feel when you run, the harder you can run without pain, and with a sense of effortless ease.”

As I say, I’ve experienced this time and again. For many years, I looked for a reliable way to get into the fabled running “zone” – that state where joy and inner silence and effortless speed come together. Nowadays, I’m not looking for the secret “method,” because I’ve found it. And to the extent that I practice it, I get the desired results. (Jump to the Zone Checklist.)

It all depends on the warmup. If I can get my heart into a positive “place” at the start of a run, and if I’m well rested, etc., I always find that I can enter the zone and run hard with greatly reduced effort.

My buddy John, who’s a boundlessly positive guy, doesn’t need a long warmup, but I do.

I talk about the “method” in my book and in the other articles here, so I’ll just recap it briefly. I warm up for a long time — for me, it may take as long as an hour and 20 minutes. Some days I’ll go that long at a very slow pace, just 65-67% of my max heart rate (MHR). Other days, I’ll go slowly for just 15-20 minutes, then I may feel like kicking it up to 70% — then 75%, or even 78-79%.

How do I decide? You guessed it — by the feeling in my heart. Here’s how it works.

After the first 15-20 minutes, I’ll begin “testing my daily speed limit,” raising the pace a hair and seeing how it feels. The telltale sign is a sense of ease – if it feels like I’m slipping smoothly into a higher gear, I’ll go with it. But if there’s a subtle negative feeling — “uh-oh, maybe not” — then I’ll drop back to 65-67% and try again later.

All the while, I’m watching my heart. And I’m practicing my personal heart-harmonizing methods: singing silently, repeating an uplifting phrase, prayer, or affirmation, etc. I may breathe deeply into my chest and hold the breath there for a moment before exhaling. I find that regular, deep breathing creates a pool of energy in the area of my heart and helps harmonize the feeling there, combined with singing, etc. Sometimes I’ll focus on my running rhythm, and see if I can make it musical, in tune with my breathing and inner singing, like a dance.

On nearly every run, my body requires a unique amount of warmup time to prepare for running fast – it might take longer on a given day because of something I ate in the morning, because I haven’t been getting enough rest, etc..

What if the body never gives that signal to run fast – if that quiet, relaxed sense of ease never comes? At those times, I don’t “argue.”

I do make mistakes. But I’m learning to be disciplined about following the heart. I’m finding that this kind of training takes patience, honesty, and a willingness to sacrifice emotional running in the present, in exchange for quality running when the time is right.

In fact, I never have to wait for some vague future “peak experiences.” When I follow the heart I always end up having wonderful runs, even if the body “wants” to go slowly — even if the heart says to stop early, hang it up, and go home. The key is doing what feels right. Doing stupid, impulsive stuff never generates good feelings at the end of a run, but doing the right thing always feels good.

The researchers at Heartmath have found that the heart can beat harmoniously and rhythmically at any speed. It doesn’t matter if you’re warming up slowly at 65% or doing hard repeats at 95% — if your feelings are positive, your running will feel less effortful regardless of your pace.

Perhaps you’re thinking “Well, then, why not ‘warm up’ the heart by generating positive feelings before we run?”

Great idea.

Last Saturday, I drove 50 miles to San Francisco to run. I enjoy driving out of town because it gives me a chance to sing in the car. On the spiritual path that I follow, music is a big deal. We use music as part of our spiritual practices, including personal singing to harmonize and uplift the heart. It’s wonderfully convenient, because the same music that helps me feel “in tune” spiritually does a good job of preparing my heart to run.

On Saturday, I ran a favorite route that starts at Crissy Field, on San Francisco Bay near the Golden Gate Bridge, then across the bridge and on a trail loop in the Marin Headlands. (I’ve put photos of the route online here.)

Now then, two things about the run. First, I didn’t need a long warmup — I’m pretty sure it’s because my heart was “warmed up” from singing in the car. Second, I practiced pace discipline, because I did not want to waste the trip on a careless, disappointing run.

These methods paid off. Back on the bridge, I kicked up the pace to 91%, to see how it would go. I decided to let my heart tell me what my body was ready for. Ninety-one percent of MHR is the highest “tempo” pace, and would normally feel labored. But because of the positive feelings in my heart, it didn’t feel difficult. It wasn’t effortless, because I was feeling mildly sub-par (and I’d been running nearly two hours), but it was quite easy, and I ended up running 30 minutes at that pace. I finished feeling “pleasantly tired.”

By golly, this heart stuff works.

Zone Checklist
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To increase the odds of finding the running “zone,” consider the following:

  1. Start with a “pre-warmup.” Listen to inspiring music, sing, send good energy to others, repeat an affirmation — whatever gets your heart beating in a positive, calm way. If you are of spiritual temperament, you might want to ask for inner guidance at the start of the run; in your own way, ask for help finding your way into a more expansive, inwardly free state, not for yourself but in order to be more fit to serve others.
  2. Start slowly. If you wear a heart monitor, try warming up at 65-67% of max heart rate (MHR). If you don’t use a monitor, jog at a pace that feels comfortable, without the slightest suggestion of effort or pressure. Warm up at this pace for at least 10-15 minutes, then gently explore your “daily speed limit.” Speed up a little and see how it feels. If it feels like you’re slipping effortlessly into a higher gear, go ahead and run at that higher pace. Every so often, change pace again and see how it feels. Some days, you won’t be able to run any faster that a slow jog without experiencing a subtle negative, “no” feeling. Honor that feeling – it’s your body’s way of telling you that it needs rest.
  3. During the warmup, “watch your heart.” Don’t let your mind wander! But don’t be tense, either. Simply watch what’s going on here and now. Pay particular attention to the feeling in the area of your heart. If there’s disharmony there, you’ll be richly rewarded if you take time to transform those negative, disturbed, or hurt feelings. A few things you might consider trying: Repeat a soothing, uplifting phrase. Listen to soothing music – or, much better, sing silently a song that gradually fills your heart with harmonious feelings. Send positive thoughts to others or pray intensely for them. (Prayer for others is a very powerful way to heal yourself — “the instrument is blessed by that which flows through it.”)
  4. Be consistent. It’s all right if your mind wants to wander – that’s natural. Certainly, it doesn’t work to tensely try to force your mind to a focus. On the other hand, don’t let the mind wander too far. A focused mind bears rich rewards; focused attention opens inner doors for peace and joy. Remember that concentration is not about brute force; it’s synonymous with strong interest. Practice taking a deep, calm, inward interest in what’s happening in every moment: your running rhythm, the passing scene, the many aspects of nature, your breathing, etc. Focus comes with deep relaxation. Realize that it may take a while for your mind and feelings to settle down.
  5. Many practices help generate positive feelings in the heart. I mentioned some of them above: singing, etc. But running itself can take you a good portion of the way. In Fitness Intuition I talk about the five stages of a run. The first stage is for the body – muscles, heart, and lungs need to get warmed up and synchronized. Toward the end of the warmup, we enter the second stage, where positive feelings arise naturally, often without any deliberate effort on our part. When you start a run, don’t try to rush into the second stage; realize that as your body warms up, you’ll naturally feel more positive. (Running is wonderful therapy for a troubled heart.)
  6. Anything you do while running that diminishes the ego will increase your enjoyment. There are lots of ways to experience this. All of the techniques mentioned so far help expand awareness beyond the little self. A particularly easy one is simply to appreciate the people you pass and the natural scenery through which you run. Feel that they are part of your own larger self.
  7. A saying in yoga is “A bent spine is the enemy of Self-realization.” Indeed, it’s much easier to “get high” while running if you hold your upper spine straight. Try joining your hands behind your back and stretching backward, as if opening your chest cavity to make room for your heart. Consider the people you know who live “from the heart,” as reflected in their posture – erect, chest-first, like a ship breaking through life’s waves with the powerful positive feelings of their hearts.
  8. Try holding your attention gently in the area of the forehead, especially at the point between the eyebrows. Don’t be tense about it. Successful people are habitually positive, enthusiastic, have laser-like concentration, and are able to accomplish what they set out to do. Brain scans of such people consistently reveal a much greater concentration of energy in this area (the prefrontal cortex) than people who have poor concentration, little ambition, flat affect, and a generally negative, dispirited outlook. Feel that the expanded consciousness in this area is simply a higher part of your own self. Feel yourself relaxing into that spacious awareness.

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