Three simple steps to help you find your running flow

Running flow results in your best runs. But what is flow and how do you find it? Use these 3 simple tips by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly to maximise your chances.

The ability to enter into a flow state of mind will help you overcome the psychological barriers associated with any race. In the new book Running Flow, pioneering flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi along with Philip Latter and Christine Weinkauff Duranso give you the tools and strategies for experiencing the power of flow yourself. Follow the three steps in this post to help maximise your chances of finding flow in your runs.

What is running flow?

Think about your most cherished running memory. Perhaps it was a race where you met a difficult challenge head on, where your mind and body were so completely tuned in that running your fastest time felt effortless. Maybe it happened while jogging through a beautiful landscape, a place so tranquil that your usually unruly mind couldn’t help but shut off, allowing you to enjoy the simple pleasures of moving through the environment. You may have felt this same sense of engagement while conversing with your friends on a long run, a journey where 2 hours felt like 20 minutes. That’s running flow.

When the simple art of #running is enough to fulfil your entire soul. That’s flow. Click To Tweet

You can experience flow during many activities, not just whilst running. And flow moments are usually among the most memorable and fulfilling in people’s lives. Flow refers to an optimal experience during which the mind and body work harmoniously while honed in on a specific task.

Why is flow a desirable state?

Flow is desirable because it is often associated with peak performance. When you are in a state of flow, you have no distractions, no deadlines, no querulous spouses to please and no outside expectations to live up to. You simply have the present moment; in that moment, the pleasure comes from the act itself.

Although flow may sound like a mysterious, ephemeral experience, in truth, it is a highly researched psychological phenomenon. Coauthor of Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first identified flow in the 1970s. Over the past 40 years, hundreds of researchers have studied this phenomenon. Their work generally leads to this conclusion: People who regularly experience flow have happier, more fulfilling lives.

Can anyone achieve running flow?

Anyone can experience flow by chance, but cultivating those experiences and benefiting from them requires knowledge and practice. Runners are fortunate because the sport offers numerous opportunities to experience flow. Racing allows competitive athletes to set goals, increase their skill level and constantly challenge themselves to be better than they were the day before. Everyday runs offer plenty of challenges, too, making flow equally accessible to recreational and fitness runners. When you set goals and surmount challenges, such as running farther in the woods than before or staying in the moment while jogging along a busy bike path, you give yourself the best chance to experience flow.

The goal of Running Flow is to give you the knowledge necessary to experience flow on a regular basis. When you understand the variables that set the stage for flow, you can increase the likelihood of experiencing flow and living a happier, more fulfilling life. Flow experiences often coincide with personal bests and major achievements, making it a wonderful (and legal!) performance enhancer.

Setting the stage for running flow
Setting the stage for running flow.

Setting the stage for running flow

No magic formula exists for creating flow. You cannot conjure it up by following a recipe or rigidly adhering to a series of steps. With that being said, certain conditions must be present for flow to occur, although their presence does not guarantee that flow will actually occur. Give yourself the best chance of experiencing flow by following these three steps.

1. Set clear goals

Knowing what you want to accomplish is the first key to experiencing flow. You may experience flow when simply running for pleasure. However, having more concrete goals, such as running a predetermined distance at a specific pace is more likely to result in flow. The quantitative nature of a concrete goal allows you to more easily measure performance. Knowing you’re on the path to achieving your goal sets the stage for all the flow components that follow.

It’s also important to have long-term, short-term and even moment-by-moment goals. Long-term goals provide needed directions on an epic journey. These directions can include a season-long training plan that successfully alternates hard and easy days, nutritional planning, supplementary exercises, and a tapering phase that helps you arrive at the starting line fit and fresh. Without a long-term vision directing your training, the odds of injury or staleness greatly increase. Setting long-term goals also help you establish realistic expectations for progression over a series of months and years.

Short-term goals are easier to bite off and dictate your daily training. Research in motivation suggests that human beings are more likely to persevere toward larger, more abstract goals when smaller, incremental goals are present along the way. If the dream is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, then running a successful workout will increase your motivation to keep training hard enough to make it to the starting line in Hopkinton. With concrete goals in mind, a bad run or a bad week is much less likely to deter you in your long-term quest.

Having a moment-by-moment awareness of your goals makes them more pliable and can better fuel your motivation. These goals can be immediate (e.g., controlling your breathing up a steep hill) or a constant reinforcement of important short-term and long-term goals (e.g., running 3:10 in the marathon to qualify for Boston). Flow experiences narrow your focus almost entirely to the task at hand. By keeping your goals at the forefront of your thinking, you stand a better chance of achieving them. At the same time, being able to adjust your goals on the fly—if your skill level or the challenge at hand proves to be higher or lower than expected—better allows you to maximise your potential on that day.

No matter what type of goal you’re setting, it should always relate to the activity. Setting a goal of experiencing flow sets you up for disappointment and according to Csikszentmihalyi, it may actually hinder you from experiencing it. You may have hopes of experiencing flow while competing, but your goals should be specific to your race. Flow is the byproduct of a perfect storm, not the storm itself.

Running in New York.

2. Find an appropriate challenge–skills balance

Finding an appropriate balance between your skills and the challenge at hand is arguably the most critical step. To experience running flow, you need to find a challenge that is within reach but still requires effort to achieve. A high challenge for an Olympian might induce terror in a recreational athlete, while a recreational runner’s goals might be too much for a novice. Fortunately, the more experience you have in setting goals for yourself, the easier this becomes.

Even at the individual level, people are far from static when it comes to their bodies and minds. A good challenge today may be too much or too little next week, depending on your mood, your physical health, and your fitness. Fluctuations in perceived skill level are normal and they can even change mid run as you feel particularly good (or particularly bad). Being aware of your current skills and the available challenges out there is a never-ending dance between the two variables.

The inverted-U theory of performance and anxiety (Yerkes & Dodson 1908) posits that humans generally improve performance as the pressure to succeed heightens, but only to a certain point. Beyond that point, the challenge becomes too high, anxiety sets in and the performance suffers. Alternatively, when the pressure to succeed is too low, you are likely to become bored or even apathetic. The stimulus theory of human motivation suggests that stimulation (challenge) is a necessary and innate need and that without adequate stimulation from our environment we become bored, agitated, and even disoriented. Therefore, you should consider the intensity of the challenge set for a run and how far reaching that challenge might be, given current skills. If you reach too high, anxiety overrides the moment; if you set the goal too low, boredom sets in and the desire to continue with the activity fades.

As you experience success in meeting your goals and facing challenges, you build self-efficacy, a belief that you have what it takes to accomplish the goals you set for yourself. As self-efficacy increases, you feel more comfortable risking failure by setting more challenging goals. Not only will you be more apt to have more flow moments, you will find greater personal satisfaction in your running altogether.

3. Be aware of internal and external feedback

Once you set a challenging goal, the next step is to consider the feedback you are receiving in real time, identifying positive internal and external feedback and responding to it.

More often than not the goal set at the onset of an activity requires adjustment along the way, and the experienced runner will learn to pay attention and adjust accordingly.

During some runs, the information you gather from your body tells you to adjust your pace, your distance, or both. If you’re feeling physically strong during a run alter your goal and performance accordingly. Sometimes the information your body gives you is less positive and you need to heed that information in order to prevent injury. When your body sends that message, listen to it; adjust the goal to something less taxing to find a more appropriate challenge–skills balance.

Internal markers are not the only data you need to monitor for feedback on performance. Externally, you need to attend to your environment, your opponents, your teammates, your coaches and even spectators if you are running competitively. Everything from monitoring distance travelled to knowing the ambient temperature can influence your strategy.

Feedback can also come from those running with you. Your position relative to your opponents may suggest that you are not pacing appropriately. If your goal is to cross the finish line ahead of a particular competitor or teammate, viewing them in the distance may tell you it is time to speed up. Your coach may tell you it is important to relax given upcoming challenges of which you are unaware. Spectators can also provide welcome positive feedback. A rise of encouragement from the crowd may suggest you are approaching a pivotal moment and need to pay attention for further feedback.

For runners who run alone and are not necessarily competitive with others, gathering internal data is more important. Aside from your surroundings indicating distance travelled, information can be gleaned from the technology you might be using. A heart rate monitor, GPS device or fitness watch can provide important details about performance that can aid your understanding of your progress. These modern marvels can tell you if your pace or heart rate is too high or low for your given goals. You may need to alter your pace or adjust your breathing after processing the information. If you make modifications, your body will respond positively, improving the chance that running flow might take place.

Running Flow
Running Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Philip Latter, Christine Weinkauff Duranso.

This article is based on an excerpt from the book Running Flow which is available to buy now from Human Kinetics, priced at £16.99 / €20.40. You can read more about the phenomenon of flow as it relates to golf in Golf Flow.

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