Flow State (Csikszentmihalyi)
Have you ever found yourself at the turnaround point of a run, realizing you don't remember the first half? It just... happened.
In this article, we're going to explore The Flow State, a concept pioneered by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don't worry, we can't pronounce it either).
We'll talk about what flow state is, how it applies to runners, and why you should care.
The Flow State Explained
Coined by Csikszentmihalyi, the Flow State is an optimal state of consciousness where individuals feel their best and perform at their peak. It's a mental zone where everything "clicks", and each action you take is subconscious and effortless.
Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a mental state characterized by complete absorption in the task at hand, resulting in a loss of self-awareness and a distorted sense of time.
A simple, easy, example of this is driving a car. Have you ever snapped out of a trance while driving, and realize you have no recollection of the last 15 minutes? Yea - everyone has.
Flow State & Endurance Sport
Imagine you're on a run, and every step, mile, and lap feel effortless. Effortless, in the literal sense - requiring no real focus or mental push. This is flow state! It's particularly common with endurance-building miles, where training sessions are long and steady state.
Csikszentmihalyi outlines several key elements of flow, and runners can relate to these on a visceral level:
The Goal is Extremely Clear: In the flow state, runners have a subconscious understanding of their objectives. Whether it's a specific distance, time duration, or simply enjoying the run, having a goal let's your mind slip into flow state.
Ever go out for a run, waffling between 2 distances? That run likely felt harder, longer, and out of routine. We're all for keeping your mileage fluid (and not being too strict with your miles). But having a plan before you start that GPS watch of yours is key.
Immediate Feedback: Flow is often accompanied by immediate feedback. Runners feel a deep connection with the present moment, receiving instant feedback from their bodies and the environment. Again, this is effortless. There's nothing for you to focus on - just relax, and let it happen.
Balance of Challenge and Skill: Flow arises when the challenge of the run aligns with the runner's skill level. Flow state can be pretty difficult to achieve if you're trying to break a new mile pr.
So rather than thinking about flow state as long-slow-distance miles only, think about it more so as what's become routine in your training. If every run you went on had a bit of speedwork in it, your brain and body would eventually become accustomed to the effort, allowing flow state to happen.
Loss of Self-Consciousness: In flow, runners lose themselves in the act of running. The chatter of the mind quiets down, and the runner becomes one with the rhythmic flow of the activity. If flow is the goal, it's more than okay to let the mind wander and drift.
Distorted Sense of Time: Time seems to fly when in flow. What might feel like minutes could be hours, showcasing the altered perception of time that characterizes this state.
Running Towards Flow
For runners, tapping into the Flow State is a pursuit worth chasing. It's those runs where you transcend the physical and enter a realm of pure, unbridled joy. Achieving flow state is also a very positive sign that your endurance/fitness levels have caught up with your training!
So, how can runners intentionally invite flow into their running experience?
Set Clear Objectives: Routine is imperative for flow state. Just as the run itself should feel routine, the distance/goal/objective should feel routine as well. No need to overthink it! Just have a plan.
Embrace Challenges: Flow arises when the challenge of the run matches your skill level. Embrace challenges that push your boundaries but remain achievable, creating the conditions for flow to emerge.
Create a Ritual: Establishing pre-run rituals can help signal to your mind that it's time to enter a focused state. Whether it's your morning cup of coffee (electrolyte infused, obviously), a specific warm-up routine, or a mental preparation ritual, consistency can pave the way for flow.
Runners love mindset and mentality. And we often put forth incredible effort to be the best athletes we can be, both physically and mentally.
Flow state is a great tool to learn about and be cognizant of. When running becomes effortless, you're on your way to achieving something great.