How to Achieve the Flow State When Running

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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?

Okay, we’ve explained what flow is and the benefits of being in a flow state when you’re running. But, how do you actually get yourself into a state of flow?

1. Love running

If you hate the thought of running, it’s going to be hard to get lost in it. To get into a state of flow in anything (including running) it’s necessary that you have a degree of passion for it.
If you don’t it will feel like a chore to put effort into the running and you’ll be watching your sports watch for the miles to clock up. Not fun. Instead, make sure you have a passion for running.
Make sure you love the thought of putting on some trainers, getting your blood pumping and building up a sweat. It’s a key ingredient for allowing yourself to experience a state of flow.

2. Attach importance to what you’re trying to achieve

When we value something and want to do well in it, we’re more likely to invest lots of time and effort into it. Therefore, we’re more likely to work harder at it which increases the likelihood of getting into a flow state.
Runners of all abilities should have a goal in mind they’d like to achieve. A goal is the object of a person’s ambition or effort; it’s the desired result. Goals motivate human beings to behave in a certain way and achieve things. For example, a sales person might set them self a goal of selling 10 units of a product before the day is out.
To ensure this goal is achieved, they will adjust their behaviour by making more calls and following up more leads to ensure the goal is accomplished. When this sales person is completing the extra calls they will probably be working in a state of flow as they work to achieve their goal. Running is the same.
Make sure you always have a goal to achieve. Whether it’s running a half-marathon in under 1:45 hours, a marathon in under 4:00 hours, a 5K in under 23 minutes or completing your first ultra-marathon, having a goal is essential for motivation to run.
Having a goal will ensure you put in the required time and effort to get the desired results which will lead to a state of flow.
Whatever it is you’re trying to achieve with running, make sure you think it’s important. It will feel easier to devote your resources to achieving it and you will certainly experience that optimal flow state where you lost track of time.

3. Ensure the run is challenging, but not too hard

As discussed in the opening of this article, finding a flow state means running at a level you find comfortably challenging. This means it is not too easy or too hard; it’s just right.
If the task is too easy, you will be able to complete it without any thought i.e. running a 30 minute 5K if you’re used to running sub 20 minute 5Ks. On the other hand, a task that is too challenging will overwhelm you i.e. attempting a sub 3 hour marathon when your PB is 3:20.

4. Remove distractions

To get into the flow state, you’re going to need to remove as many distractions as you deem necessary. Getting rid of all the attention grabbers possible is essential for finding the flow state for runners.
The last thing you need when trying to perform at your best is to have lots of things competing for your attention.
Instead, you’ll want to remove as many distractions as necessary to enable a mental lock into the running at hand.
Removing distractions means different things for different runners. For some it’s running with music to block out external noise, for others it’s running on an athletics track early in the morning to block out most visual distractions. You could even remove distractions by choosing to occasionally run solo rather than running with friends.
Increase your chances of getting into a state of flow when running by removing all distractions you deem necessary. Your concentration and performance will improve drastically.

5. Be prepared for long periods of running focus

This may be one of the most important tips on the list. If you’re anything like me, you might have a pretty active mind with thousands of thoughts bouncing around your brain in any given moment.
The key to finding a state of flow is to remove all external thoughts and hone in on the task at hand with absolute tunnel vision. This means removing distracting thoughts irrelevant on running whenever they come into your head for a prolonged period of time.
When you’re running, focus solely on the activity itself. Don’t think about anything else like your job or family. Consciously decide to devote your attention and thoughts only to the running at hand. Focus on your technique, where you’re going and the objective of the session.
Every time you notice your mind wandering to an irrelevant topic, grab your attention and pull it back to the running. This will be hard at first but give it time and you will quickly experience deep focus for prolonged periods of time and enjoy the flow state.
If you follow this tip, you’ll run with just the run on your mind. You’ll look down at your watch and be gobsmacked to find how quickly the run is going because you will have lost track of time. You’ll have found a sense of flow.

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