Time 'in the zone' about as good as it gets for athletes at every level
There is a good line from Greg Louganis which I've always subscribed to. He surmises that sport, at its most perfect, is simply 'meditation in motion'.
I had reason to quote him recently in an interview with Ciaran O'Lionaird, currently our best middle-distance runner. O'Lionaird (below) is intelligent, confident, open-minded and not afraid to be himself and, as a consequence, a great interviewee. He has struggled with injury since his stunning breakthrough at the World Championships in Daegu in 2011, but, thankfully, a recent Achilles operation has put him right.
These days, his long runs are free of the constant monitoring of pain levels, so I asked him what he tends to think about now, in his less polluted headspace. Much of the time, he said, it's nothing too deep.
It can be about dinner that night or the pile of ironing in the bedroom corner. His favourite time, though, is when his mind goes quiet.
He said: "The time you know when things are changing for the good is when you start to visualise a race or a success in the future. I remember a couple of weeks ago, I was running along and without me consciously trying to think about it, the thought of racing (at the European Championships) in Zurich came into my head.
"I was just cruising through a semi-final or a heat race and just feeling good. I noticed that my pace picked up by 10 seconds for that mile. I was out of it, though. I was just in that zone. I thought: 'Wow! It's here'. That's really cool. To not have to try."
I mentioned the Louganis line to him and he nodded. "It encapsulates the notion that you're doing something really special when you're running for a living."
It extends, of course, far beyond just running. When top-level sportspeople talk about being 'in the zone,' they all refer to the same staples. Not having to try. A quiet mind. Little conscious thought. Letting it flow. Feeling relaxed.
It's a glorious place to be and, thankfully, extends beyond the professional ranks too. I've been dabbling for some time with meditation and mindfulness and various ways to quieten the mind, which feels forever besieged by e-mails and twitter and computer screens and general noise.
I've also made a point of reading for more than 11 minutes at a time, in a bid to combat my ever-shrinking, 21st century attention span.
But none of the above comes remotely close to topping the metronomic seductive powers of a long, lonely run, where a solemn kind of rhythm takes over body and mind.
Nothing yet has consumed my attention, and shut off all thoughts, like playing a game of football.
There is a magic to participating in sport which is hard to capture. Maybe it works on too many levels. But from Louganis, O'Lionaird to every January jogger, there is a shared understanding that time 'in the zone' is about as good it gets.