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On running and finding flow

For runners, flow is most likely to apply to any hard or prolonged effort, such as during a workout, long run or race

running motivation

Motivation to run

We’ve all heard of the infamous runner’s high, a term used to describe a state when the act of running becomes seemingly effortless. When time appears to stand still and the miles tick away as you float towards your destination.

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While the nature of the runner’s high remains up for debate, a far better understood and conceptually sound term can also apply. Also referred to as being “in the zone” or “on fire” when applied to sport and athletic feats, this term is simply called “flow.”

Flow is used to describe a mental state and experience wherein a person is performing an activity while they are focused, fully involved and experiencing great enjoyment and satisfaction.

The term flow was made famous by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a renowned proponent of positive psychology. This branch of psychology aims to better understand and create effective means of achieving happiness and living a fulfilling existence. Naturally, this easily applies to running.

The concept of flow can be applied to multiple fields and activities, from bird watching to business meetings, but it’s general characteristics include:

  • An intense and focused concentration at the moment of performing the activity
  • The merging of physical action and mental awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A heightened sense of personal control over the situation and its outcome
  • A subjective distortion—slowing down or speeding up—of time
  • Experiencing the activity as intrinsically rewarding and satisfying

In order to achieve a state of flow, three important conditions must first be met:

  1. You must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This provides direction and structure.
  2. The task must provide clear and immediate feedback. This helps negotiate changing demands and allows for an adjustment to performance in order to maintain the flow state.
  3. You must establish a balance between the perceived challenge of the task and your skill level. It requires confidence in the ability to complete the task. The task or activity must also be sufficiently challenging and require a high level of skill and competence.

For runners, flow is most likely to apply to any hard or prolonged effort, such as during a workout, long run or race. In these moments, runners often have clear goals as well as a specific plan to achieve it. Despite demanding a high level of physical exertion and skill, running may feel effortless and seconds, minutes, even an hour or so, may seem to float or fly by. Perhaps most importantly, the benefits and enjoyment that running provides are done for intrinsic reasons. The feelings of joy and satisfaction are a driving force behind why we choose to perform the activity and the sensations of bliss and euphoria experienced at times offer extra incentive to continue to take part.

Training for a particular race is a challenging endeavour that requires specific skills and preparation. It also allows an individual to set specific goals and follow a carefully considered plan. As runners put in the time and effort needed to work towards their goals, they are able to monitor their progress and adjust accordingly to optimize their chances of success. When given the opportunity to test themselves,  in a race or hard workout, a flow experience may be achieved when skills and abilities meet and succeed at the task at hand.

It may not happen all that often and the means to achieve it are ambiguous and unclear, but if and when you’re able to experience flow through running, it can make all the time and training worthwhile, and send you back for more.

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