The path to a permanent experience of the zone (the flow) during exercise can stretch over months and even years. The body needs time to get rid of old habits and get used to a different way of functioning under load. In this sense, the most important criterion is the number of heartbeats. As the level of readiness and training increases, the number of heartbeats decreases with the same loads. This will surely happen if you follow the “rules” of exercise for the soul. However, people are sometimes surprised at how low it can go. And it can go really low, but we usually don’t look in that direction. As the saying goes, what the mind doesn’t know, the eyes can’t see. In this case, what the mind does not know, the body cannot do. It’s time to tell it that it can.

Once you’ve maintained a consistent exercise routine for several months (4h30 min per week, 6 exercises per week, varied training from low to high aerobic plus at least one interval, and an attempt to maintain nose breathing), it’s time to set a frame, a scale, or a benchmark. This will serve as a guide, a measure against which we can track your progress over the next few months.

We know that along with the flow experience, heartbeats are usually not higher than the beginning of the third heart zone or, ideally, near the top of the second. Each of you must know how much that is. Here’s a reminder.

First, determine your maximum heart rate – maxHR. According to the textbooks, it is 220 minus the number of your years. Let’s say, in my case, it would be 158. However, textbooks are one thing, and the real situation is another. My max is around 175, but I count it at 168 to be safe (no more is needed, really; more means I am struggling and putting myself at risk). MaxHR is divided by half to determine the start of the first heart zone. In my case, that would be 84. So, if the heart beats slower than 85, it’s not exercise. Only above that can it be considered that we have exposed the body to a certain load.

After that, we divide the upper half (in this case, from 85 to 168) into five equal parts. Or, expressed differently, from 50% HR to 60%HR is the first heart zone; after that, every 10% is the transition to the next heart zone. In this case, the first heart zone is from 85 to 102, and the second is from 103 to 120. You don’t have to be mathematically precise in this; leave the precision to your watch, which will automatically calculate the HR zones, and on better watches, you can adjust them yourself.

So my “magic limit” is number 120 or somewhere around it. When the zone experience occurs, the heart rate will probably drop near that.

When we know our data, we choose an exercise in which we can control the load (slowing down or speeding up the tempo without any problems or delays and thereby changing the number of beats). In this sense, the treadmill is the best for me, but of course, you can choose something else.

So what we want to say to our body now is, “Look, you can do this at exactly that heart rate. Don’t raise your heart rate, whatever happens.”

Of course, if you try to do this in practice, the body will work as before—as you add load, it will increase the number of ticks. That’s natural, right? The body has to supply oxygen to the muscles to work fast, and the heart has no other choice—it has to beat faster and harder. We are so used to it.

However, it is not true that it has to be like that. In the zone, the body begins to function differently, to use other resources (it is not yet clear exactly which, but it is happening) and, in other words, to increase efficiency (reduce consumption with the same work).

But we are used to something different. For example, some people will jump into the fourth or fifth heart zone when they start running and will not come down from it. Whatever your body is used to until now, that habit needs to be broken. It is broken by training and adopting a different habit.

The exercise I will describe, based on the example I gave the other day, is intended to break past habits and test progress. It should be carried out once a month (possibly every third week).

The idea is that you do the exercise for 40 to 60 minutes with continuous heart rate maintenance around your “magic number.” When you exercise, you slow down or speed up so your heart rate doesn’t oscillate.

Here’s how it looked for me.

I chose a 60-minute workout (plus or minus 10%) with the intention of running approximately 10 km. That would be pretty ambitious for me if running outside, but on the treadmill, it’s doable. In the end, the timed exercise lasted 64 minutes, and I ran 11 km with an average heart rate of 117 (which is just under my “magic number” of 120).

Look at the heart rate and movement speed (pace) chart.

As you can see, the first two kilometers were warm-ups, and the heart rate gradually increased while maintaining a relatively good speed. However, I slowed down once I reached 120 (max HR was 124), preventing my heart from beating even higher. So, I effectively reduced the load and kept the HR at the same level. To achieve this, the pace had to be reduced. As you can see, the chart’s blue line is slowly decreasing. Not much, admittedly, but it is clearly visible. If you look at the table of movement by kilometers, it looks like this:

During the first four kilometers, I even increased the movement speed (from 6:14 minutes in the first kilometer with an average HR of 101 to 6:00 in the fourth kilometer with an average HR of 122). After that, I maintained the average at that level (around 120), but to succeed, I had to reduce the pace, which dropped to 6:57 minutes per kilometer in the tenth kilometer.

And of course, don’t forget to have a calm down period at the end of the practice (that was my 11th kilometer in this case, with a very slow pace of 13:34 minutes per kilometer, with an average HR of 113)

All in all, I did a good basic aerobic workout, but I accomplished two additional things simultaneously. First, I began to accustom my body to shape the exercise around the heart rate, NOT around the SPEED OF MOVEMENT. If such conditioning of the body succeeds, later on, the body itself, due to the new habit, will maintain that rhythm regardless of the load it is exposed to.

Secondly, I set parameters to control the progress. Regular training continues in the manner described earlier, and the same exercise is performed under the same conditions every three to four weeks. Over time, you should be able to do the same workout while maintaining the same HR and pace the whole time or even gradually increasing your pace but maintaining the same HR.

Remember that, depending on your fitness level, the differences between the initial minutes of exercise and the end of it can be significantly larger (you will need to reduce the load significantly if you want to keep your HR around your magic number). That’s perfectly fine. Choose an exercise that works for you, measure the parameters, whatever they are, and then track how they improve over time.

Good luck!

About the Author: Adrian

Author and writer of more than fifty books, teacher, lecturer, explorer of consciousness, avid windsurfer, and lover of outdoor activities. He’ll write mostly about windsurfing on fin and foil, spot reviews, and camping equipment.
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