Running and the concept of ‘flow’ go together hand in hand. A flow state is a state of the mind where a person performing an activity is fully immersed in the task, feels totally involved and gets enjoyment from the activity. Flow is also associated with more efficient practice and performance, however getting into the flow state can be hard. In this article we’ll look more into what flow is, how it can be advantageous to your running and how to get into a flow state.
What is ‘flow’?
Have you ever opened a book, started reading for 30 minutes, looked at the clock and been surprised to find out 3 hours has actually passed? Have you ever practiced something you enjoy like a musical instrument, a language or studied for an exam, and totally lost track of the time? Maybe you’ve become totally engrossed in a task and every aspect of completing it is engaging, stimulating and enjoyable. If any of these are familiar then you have already experienced a flow state.
The experience of total absorption in an activity was branded the state of ‘flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is when we experience complete immersion in the task at hand and lose track of time. We’re so engrossed in what we’re doing, there’s nothing else on our mind when we’re in the flow state and we have complete and total focus in what we’re doing.
Flow is the state which helps allow professional musicians, sports stars, actors, speakers and top business people to practice and perform to an exceptionally high standard consistently.
Csikszentmihaly wrote an entire book on flow. The book was called ‘Flow: the psychology of happiness.’ This book quickly became a best seller due to its ‘self-help’ qualities which made it more accessible for a wide range of audiences.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the state of flow happens under the following conditions only: when we encounter a challenge that is testing to our skills and abilities yet not so testing that we are overwhelmed and unable to participate. The challenge and skill level demands of the activity must be at our high levels of competency, stretching us to our perceived limits. If you think about it, these conditions make sense.
Have you ever tried learning a musical piece 5 grades above your current level? How did you feel during a chess, darts or tennis game with someone who was much less advanced than you? What about completing a report on a topic you have no previous background or knowledge on? Chances are, you found these situations to be either too hard or too easy. You probably experienced either little to no stimulation, or complete overwhelm when completing these tasks that were either too easy or too hard.
Csikszentmihalyi argues that challenges exceeding skills can cause anxiety whereas skill exceeding challenge creates boredom. If you often find yourself distracted, demotivated or overwhelmed when running, understanding and applying the concept of ‘flow’ could be exactly what you need. Your running may improve significantly after you learn and implement the ‘flow’.
My experience of the amazing power of ‘flow’ when running
Last Saturday, I participated in my 20th half marathon. My previous personal best was 1:24:59 and I beat this record by a whopping 53 seconds, coming in at a time of 1:24:06. I was extremely impressed. After I crossed the line and looked at my watch in bewilderment with my time, I thought something was different in that race.
When running the 13.1 miles of the half-marathon, I noticed that I had ‘zoned out’ of my regular thinking and instead focused with tunnel vision on the race. No other thoughts came into my mind; I was totally focused on the race.
I also ensured that I pushed myself comfortably to my limit. I can comfortably run a 6:40 per mile pace under normal circumstances so I aimed to push this to a rate of 6:30 minutes per mile for a healthy challenge. It was on the cusp of my competency level and I felt comfortably challenged.
During the race, I put earphones in to make sure I wasn’t distracted by my environment i.e. the other participants, the marshals and the spectators.
After what felt like a couple of miles of running, I looked down at my watch and could not believe I had already clocked up 7 miles. It was as if time was going by extremely fast, I wasn’t even paying attention to my watch. I was experiencing total immersion in the running which allowed me to lock into it with intense focus.
Having recently read the book by Csikszentmihalyi, I can confidently say I was experiencing a state of flow. I believe this state of flow – becoming absorbed in the running – allowed me to beat my half-marathon record by almost a minute.
This is just one example of how finding flow whilst running can lead to exceptional results. Check out some of the benefits of being in a ‘flow’ state when running.
What are the benefits of being in a ‘flow’ state when running?
1. Better focus
Runners in the flow state can focus entirely on the task at hand. The usual self-negative, self-defeating talk disappears and the only think in the mind is putting one foot in front of the other. You won’t be thinking about work, the family, bills or politics. You’ll be focused on the task at hand. Being in flow will make you focus on the running.
2. Improved performance
Research has found that being in a flow state can lead to better results in the task at hand. In running, this may mean a faster time or employing a better technique when moving. As you’re totally focused on the running, you’re more likely to correct any inefficiencies in technique and make better decisions.
3. Experiencing Challenges
Life is filled with challenges, problems and issues. To get through life with confidence and conviction in what you do, you need to have experience in taking on challenges. Being in the flow state means you get direct contact with challenges which can make you more comfortable when taking on hardships.
When running in a flow state, you’re operating at a challenging level which is just at the edge of your current capability. This means you’re not so challenged that you cannot cope but instead ensures a comfortable level of challenge to ensure you can give the piece of training or performance your best go.
Practicing flow states when running provides great experience at taking on a challenge which can apply to other areas of life and help you out, as you will encounter and tackle challenges on a regular basis through running.
4. Provides a sense of enjoyment and happiness
In his book, Csikszentmihali says ‘the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. I shied away from it and as a result, prevented myself from growing more than I could have.’
The author is suggesting that the flow state, being totally immersed in a moderately challenging task, is a key ingredient to experiencing enjoyment and necessary for personal growth.
Have you ever started something new, like learning a language or playing a musical instrument, and established a level of competence, and then continued to keep pushing to learn more? Even though it probably felt hard and at the brink of your abilities, the chances are you felt positive about your choice to progress beyond a basic level of ability into more advanced levels. You probably experienced a degree of the flow sensation.
When you’re making an effort to run in the flow state, you will feel happier with the knowledge you’re consciously making an effort to push yourself to the limit and improve as an athlete. If you want to feel good about your running, be sure to practice getting into a state of flow.
What are some practical ways to get into a ‘flow’ state when running?