In the 21st century, running has emerged as one of the most popular, most covered, and most unifying athletic disciplines. Running helps us stay in shape, take time for ourselves as well as spend it enjoyably with others. Running also brings us pleasure, joy, and satisfaction. It means mastering an art and occasionally reaching a state of unparalleled contentment. Could this be the flow state that we are experiencing?
What is the flow state?
The flow state, or simply flow, is a heightened state of a consciousness that emerges in anyone who is partaking in their passion and achieving their goals. The flow state happens when we practice an activity that motivates us, that challenges us without exhausting us too much, and whose objectives correspond with what we are capable of accomplishing both on physical and psychological levels. So, the flow state transpires when we push our limits and decide to make a voluntary effort to overcome the challenges involved in accomplishing a difficult task that is ultimately worth the sacrifice. The flow state is a synonym for commitment, mastery, and accomplishment. In this way, this state differs from the “runner’s high” experience, which is a pure hormonal response to expended physical effort.
How does Flow work?
A state of focused attention
The flow state of consciousness naturally leads us to give our attention completely to what we are feeling, what we are seeing, and what we are living in the moment. We are able to feel the entirety of our body while at the same time absorbing the surrounding scenery and feeling the presence of our running companions. In a state of flow, attention is effortless; at least. In effect, we are in a state that compels us to give our attention to our surroundings and to the things related to our run without any extra effort to do so.
Because of this, while we are paying attention to many things, we do not feel more fatigued or drained than when paying a minimum of attention to the run and thinking of something else. In this way, running in a state of flow is not more costly in terms of energy expenditure. We only pay attention to the internal and external stimulations related to the run without thinking of our daily difficulties, work, or our obligations. The only thing that matters is the run and everything that goes along with it—nothing else.
A synergy between action and awareness—a true feeling of control
Performing an activity in a state of flow means performing an activity whose challenges are at a level that we can manage both physically and psychologically. Performing an activity in a state of flow means performing an activity the way it should be performed: the best that we are able in line with our strengths and weaknesses. At this point, a synergy between what we are doing and what we are able to do is reached. What follows is a feeling of absolute mastery and control because everything “is as it should be”. This synergy is therefore often a synonym for agility and ease when we run. Running at an intensity whose demands are at a level we can manage lets us optimize the conditions that allow us to experience that state of flow and perfect control of what we are doing.
A change in awareness of yourself and time
Unlike our usual state of consciousness, the flow state keeps us from being caught up in our own ego and preconceived notions. The only thing that counts is what we are currently doing and how well equipped we are to accomplish it. Our attention is focused on what we are doing, on the environment we find ourselves in, and the feelings of control and mastery that emanate from us. In these conditions, our way of seeing and perceiving ourselves is no longer linked to the beliefs that we have about ourselves and the world: only to the physical and psychological sensations which come from completing the activity. The only thing that exists is the action we are engaged in, the positive sensations it brings, and the absence of associated temporal pressure. This characteristic of the flow state lets us fully experience the run without being influenced by what we believe that we can or must do. Mentally, the flow state allows us to act without emotions, without beliefs, and without needing to identify ourselves with them. Running in a flow state relieves us of the necessity of feeling and regulating emotions and thoughts that don’t originate from the activity we are currently engaged in. It therefore allows us to fully experience our run without having to constantly think and rethink about the worries or stressful day-to-day aspects of life.
How can you optimize your chances of experiencing the flow state?
Clarifying your objectives
Define clear objectives; that is, objectives that correspond to our motivation and what we are realistically capable of doing. Achieving goals that are too simple is boring. Achieving goals that are too difficult is draining. Achieving goals whose difficulty is matched with what we are able to accomplish, on the other hand, allows us to surpass our own limits and call on resources that we didn’t know we had. This is what optimizes our flow experience. Expanding the possibilities of experiencing this state of consciousness therefore begins with a clear identification of our short-, mid-, and long-term goals throughout all the areas of our life (body, emotional, social). It is also important not to hesitate to change them if need be, so that we may keep them perfectly in line with who we are and what we can and want to accomplish.
Finding the balance between challenge and comfort
Finding a balance between the difficulty level and personal ability is similar to goal-setting. Completing a session that’s too easy doesn’t challenge us and instead bores us. Completing a session that’s too difficult stimulates us too much and ends up wearing us down. On the other end of the scale, completing a session whose difficulty is matched to what we can physically and psychologically handle challenges us, allows us to push ourselves, and accomplish tasks that we perhaps thought ourselves incapable of. Optimizing the experience of this flow state means taking the time to learn exactly what we are capable of accomplishing and what we cannot reasonably accomplish. It is however important to note that in addition to this balance between challenge and skill, running in a beautiful location, knowing that we’re leading our team to victory, or being aware of the benefits running brings us are also favorable to inducing the flow state. Optimizing all of this and the complete and entire attention we afford it is the path to flow.
Choose the “friendly” sensations that will serve to guide you
Defining what sensations we expect to experience is as important as defining our goals and the difficulty of our session. These sensations help us to know if what we’re doing is good (positive sensations) or bad (negative sensations) for us. Precisely defining the sensations we’ve decided to emphasize gives us the ability to effectively guide our run, to have all the attentional resources necessary, and to find a reliable tool for balancing challenge and skill. It is therefore essential to clearly define what we need to guide us. Before each session, take the time to identify the sensations that will guide your experience. This will be different for everyone. As an example, the sensations of pleasure and/or displeasure, just like feedback from our teammates, are good “friendly sensations” which can help us to effectively manage our run and optimize our chances of experiencing the flow state.
Keep your level of intrinsic motivation high
Intrinsic motivation makes it possible for us to enhance our will to perfect our skills. Our skills will slowly improve, and we will advance in accomplishing our goals, simultaneously increasing our chances of positively experiencing a session, of completing it with all our skills and attention, and thus experiencing the flow state. Keeping intrinsic motivation high is therefore an essential aspect to increasing your chances of experiencing the flow state. To do this, you must be able to tap into the pleasure that running gives you each and every moment. If you are only feeling displeasure, change your session so that pleasure, and therefore intrinsic motivation, returns.
Mauraine Carlier – Doctor in Sport Psychology
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Latter, P., & Duranso, C. W. (2016). Running Flow (1 edition). Human Kinetics, Inc.
Mauraine est docteur en psychologie cognitive et psychologie du sport. Son travail porte sur l’étude des facteurs psychologiques et cognitifs prédisant l’occurrence des blessures chez les coureurs.