Goal setting, goal getting and being in the zone

Article by Jason Croston


We often hear about people such as performers or athletes being “in the zone,” but what does this really mean?

As an avid runner and somewhat obsessed with achievement in general, I have often thought about this “in the zone” concept and wondered whether I had ever reached that special state.

It wasn’t until I recently experienced being totally in the zone that I realised I’d never fully achieved it before.

On Sunday 29 September 2019, for the first time in my life I had zero doubt I was well and truly in the hallowed zone. I was running in the Berlin Marathon and reaching this “in the zone” state helped me achieve my dream performance. This was unequivocally my greatest day of running, but looking back on it, how did I know I was in the zone?

And more importantly perhaps, how did I get there? (So I can know how to get back there at will in the future!) It is a little difficult for me to describe, but there were definitely some deliberate things I did to get me there.

How it felt to be “in the zone”

Well, to be totally honest, I can’t fully recall! As odd as it sounds, I simply can’t remember much of the race. And apparently that’s tell-tale sign that I was in the zone. There are large chunks of time that I can’t account for and many historic sites in Berlin along the route that I can’t remember seeing at all.

Except for one. The Brandenburg Gate. More about that in a moment.

Metronomic consistency

Yet, despite being in this near trance-like state, my times for each 5 kilometre split were incredibly consistent. I ended up with a personal best improvement of 10 minutes, with a time of 2:46:25. This is a time for me, that just a few years ago, I would not have believed possible.

Not surprisingly for Germans renowned for their engineering precision, the Berlin Marathon course is meticulously marked with timing mats every 5 kilometres to allow you to measure the splits I mentioned earlier. As all dedicated runners do, during a race I also have my Garmin watch tracking me via GPS. My official splits were: 19:48, 19:38, 19:34, 19:35, 19:39, 19:34, 19:41, 20:09. A consistent and nearly meditative metronome.

Running in a trance

During the race, I mostly remember the dotted blue line on the road, and thinking about the next drink station, the next gel to take and running through the finish line at Brandenburg Gate. That’s it. That’s my main recollection of the race.

I had my name on my race bib and a couple of times random people called out my name and I briefly felt startled awake. If you look through photographs from the race, you can see this in a way. I’m holding the same position and the same expression just about the whole way.

Except for when I ran through Brandenburg Gate.

I’d broken out of my trance-like state and was celebrating with 400 metres to go!

How did I get there?

So how do I think I end up in the zone?

The most obvious factor is my training in the lead-up. This was the most consistent block of training I have ever been through, across a dedicated 12-week period of running an average of 140 kilometres per week.

My recent favourite running quote comes to mind here from Michael Joyner who predicted that someone would run a marathon in under 2 hours back in 1991:

Run a lot of miles

Some faster than your race pace

Rest once in a while

In other words, keep it simple. The golden rule of competitive running is to get the training done and get to the start line injury free.

I’ve failed this key point many times before, but this time my body was ready.

The bigger part though, beyond the physical preparation was my mind: my mental preparation.

Learning from experience, building routine

A major part of my mental preparation was learning from my previous 11 marathons, some of which were big failures. Through these experiences I now have a simple and methodical process from the moment I wake up to the moment I cross the finish line. I don’t want to have too much to think about before the race and my preparation and performance now feels similar to when you drive your car home from work and can’t really remember any specific details about the journey.

That’s not to say that the process is so rigid that it can’t change.

The power of the (calm) mind

A more critical aspect was learning to keep my mind calm in the moment. I have dedicated myself to training my mind almost as much as my body for the last couple of years with consistent meditation having the biggest impact.

I have been a regular and consistent user of the Headspace app for the last couple of years and repeated many courses. In the lead-up to the Berlin Marathon I repeated the ‘competition’ meditation course which calls for me to focus on a point or image. The image I chose in my meditation was Brandenburg Gate.

I meditated on this image for 10 days straight, prior to the event.

As a result, I found myself on race day in this trance-like meditative state, calmly following my automated process and dreaming of running through the Brandenburg Gate.

Getting yourself into the zone

Being in the zone comes as no accident. It is a product of consistently training both body and mind to be ready for the moment. The moment can be anything. It doesn’t need to be running a marathon or indeed any sport.

It applies to any moment whether in your personal or business life.

If you want to maximise your performance, think about how you can develop routines and train your body and your mind to achieve your best.