THE FLOW STATE: THE SCIENCE OF RUNNING IN “THE ZONE”

“I’ve never felt lighter in a race. I didn’t hurt the whole time. It was an out of body experience.”
-Elite runner describing his best race

You know the feeling. You’re engaged in a lively conversation and don’t realize that three hours have passed; you’re writing, and feel so swept up by inspiration that you can’t tear yourself away; you’re golfing, and just can’t seem to miss; you’re running, easily hitting splits that were once out of reach, or you’re joyfully lost in the technicality of a single track trail. You’re in Flow State.

Flow State, a concept initially identified and developed my Mihalyi Csziksentmihalyi1, is known as one of life’s optimal experiences. Simply, flow is complete immersion in the task at hand. Some great thinkers claim that this experience is happiness defined. Commonly known in popular culture as “the zone,” flow is believed to be the ideal performance state. Countless incredible performances have been credited to flow, driving achievers in every domain to pursue its prized and elusive graces.

In this article I will describe the experience of flow, outline what happens in our brains and bodies during flow, and discuss the factors that contribute to flow experiences. Finally, a simple flow formula will be outlined along with an activity designed to help you experience flow more frequently.

WHAT DOES FLOW FEEL LIKE? 

Flow is most often described as complete absorption in an experience1. It is the feeling of complete focus that occurs during a conversation that fascinates you. It is the stream of ideas and creativity that keeps writers, artists, and musicians behind closed doors, captured by their craft. It is the experience of heightened “feel” in skill based sports, and relatively effortless exertion in speed and endurance sports. Often, when a performer is asked what they were thinking following a flow experience they will reply, “I don’t know,” or “nothing at all.”

Flow experiences are characterized by2:

Action and awareness merging – A feeling of unity between body and mind, the task you are engaged in, and even the tools being used to carry out the task.

Time transformation – The impression that long events seem comparatively short, or short events seem comparatively long.

Concentration on the task at hand – 100% focus on the challenge before you.

Loss of self-consciousness – You are not concerned with what others are thinking about you.

Sense of control – You feel capable of meeting the challenge before you.

Autotelic experience – You love the act of taking part in the task for its own sake.

WHAT HAPPENS TO US DURING FLOW? 

There is good reason why a performer can’t remember the specifics of what she was thinking or doing during flow: flow causes parts of a performers brain to slow down. Of course, this is contrary to what we might presume, but it is true! When we enter flow state we experience a phenomenon called hypofrontality3, which simply means that the area of our brain responsible for rational thought – the pre-frontal cortex, is subdued. Additionally, during flow the part of our brain responsible for fear, the amygdala, is also inhibited3.

Reduced cognitive processing leaves more neural resources available for the task at hand, allowing them to operate at their highest capacity. Complete immersion allows for instinct to rule, the trained instinct of an athlete facing a challenge for which they have prepared. Neural processing is slow compared to the speed of a trained body. Hypofrontality allows the body to perform as it has been trained, without delay or distraction from the thinking mind3.

WHAT IS REQUIRED FOR FLOW EXPERIENCES? 

Despite the great deal of research that has been invested in flow state, and its revered value for human experience, flow is still elusive and not well understood. However, some conditions appear to contribute to most flow experiences1:

Challenge-skills balance – You perceive the challenge before you as a stretch, but not an impossibility. Flow occurs in the challenge continuum between panic and boredom. If a task is too easy you are unlikely to experience flow, and if the task is too challenging flow will be impossible due to the overwhelming power of extreme fear and anxiety. The optimal challenge is one for which you feel prepared, and for which previous performances and training sessions indicate you are ready.

Clear goals – You know precisely what you are trying to achieve. Goals provide a concrete target for your attention.

Unambiguous feedback – While you are performing you are aware of how you are doing.

Although not researched as thoroughly as the above conditions for flow state, I have observed another factor that appears to contribute to flow: excitement. Athletes who feel excited to engage in a task, or meet a challenge seem to experience flow more frequently than those who appear apathetic or cynical.

ONE SIMPLE FLOW FORMULA 

In my role as a mental performance consultant, I learn both through literature, and through interaction with athletes. This spring I was privy to several conversations that greatly impacted my view of flow state. They arose in response to a question I always ask my athletes, please tell me about your best race, especially the factors that you believe contributed to it being so outstanding. To my surprise, every single athlete credited his or her best performance to a feeling of connection to a loved one. One highlighted happiness in a romantic relationship, another was moved by seeing his family at the start line, another referred to her father in the crowd. Since I started sharing this observation other stories have poured in: a tribute to a deceased fellow athlete, a wonderful first camping trip with a girlfriend, feeling grateful to be in the company of friends; athlete after athlete highlighted moments of connection to other people as their triggers for flow. This does make sense. Science has shown that love can reduce fear and pain, which as we now know is common to flow state also.

So, taking into account the feeling of flow, the conditions for it, and my own interactions with athletes, I have the following flow formula for you to try. It incorporates three factors I have observed to contribute to flow: challenge, preparation, and connection:

  1. Write down the reasons why you are excited to be racing or training today. Why is the experience meaningful? Why is it fun? Why are you grateful for it?
  1. Why are you prepared to have a great race or training session today? You can reflect on past workouts and races, you can consider why you trust your coach, or yourself?
  1. Who in your life makes you smile regardless of how well you run? Picture their face; what qualities do you love about them? What qualities do they love about you?

Consider these questions during a quiet time, well before an important race. Experiment with them in practice. I’d recommend having a few memories of loved ones on hand, and use them carefully. Sometimes one memory can lose it’s impact if used too frequently – but then of course there are moments that always move us, and I’m hopeful that this information about flow state will help you have more of these in your running.

References:

  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York, NY: Harper & Row
  2. Jackson, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
  3. Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superman. New York, NY: Harpour Mifflin

 

Special thanks to Shannon Thompson for contributing this guest post.

Shannon ThompsonAbout the author: Shannon Thompson is a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Hypo2 Sport High Performance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. Shannon holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, her primary clientele are elite endurance athletes, and student athletes from numerous sports at Northern Arizona University. Shannon is also a researcher, focusing specifically on understanding and helping athletes to optimize the moments of highest exertion in training and competition. She is also a competitive runner on the road and trail.

 

Recommended Additional Reading: 5 Common Mistakes Runners Make and How to Fix Them

 

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