To reach a feeling of mindless grace while training feels amazing and allows you to perform at your best, but it does take a lot of hard work to get there. Here are my essential tips for getting into the flow
I’m an average club runner – far from elite – but one who has seen a huge improvement in the last four years. In 2009 I ran the Great North Run in 2hrs 1m. This year, I came 396th out of 56,000 in 1hr 24m. But better than the fast times has been the improved experience: this year’s GNR was run without the mental battles (you know what they are) and, at the end, I knew I could run faster.
On a recent long training run with a couple of regulars from my local club, the conversation turned to questions of how we’d achieved our 2013 race goals. We were talking about training efficiency – I couldn’t get over the fact that, for the 55 miles we’d run that week, burning around 7,000 calories, we’d been on our feet for just eight hours. Our runningwas incredibly efficient in reaching our goals. We were wasting no time at all on our feet – time was flying by, in training and in races. After months of effort at a high level, we’d found a zone of running where it felt effortless, absorbing, good, in training and in racing. What we’d entered into were regular states of flow.
Flow is a popular concept. Introduced to the world by the psychologistMihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1990s, it as a state of mindless grace where one acts at optimal performance without having to think about it. Or in Csikszentmihalyi’s words: “Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
This isn’t about a flash of solo talent or genius. Reaching flow states is not an accident: it happens after a lot of hard work, over a long period of time. To reach flow more often, there are six qualities your practice must have:
1. High skill – which means practice, practice, practice
2. High challenge, but achievable – don’t overreach
3. A supportive and knowledgeable network
4. Clear goals and means to measure progress, with immediate feedback
5. Intrinsic value
6. Systems that remove distractions, and for building habits and rituals
It’s a high-skill, high-challenge state of absorption. Too little skill for the challenge leads to disillusionment and injury. Reverse those, and it leads to boredom. To reach flow more often, all six factors are important and they interact. Without immediate feedback, you cannot feel good about your progress. But without running for the sake of it, such progress-driven focus can become a stress. In my own running I have identified the following essentials to get into flow:
1. Consistent training over a period of months and years
2. Increasing the challenges firmly but gradually
3. Joining a running club, with regular club coaching and runners of better ability to pull me along
4. Clear goals of beating 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon times, and using running apps (and a geeky annual wall planner!) to chart progress
5. Leaving the Garmin at home once a month
6. A coach-led training routine, with others holding me to account
The point about flow is that it is enjoyable. As research has shown “the more often athletes experienced flow, the happier they were.” But the second is that entering flow actually improves performance.
For my running, joining a running club has been the most important factor, because it provides so many of the other elements. The knowledge of a collective group and the support of coaches and other runners who know what you’re trying to achieve. In the same research conducted in the US, they found that “athletes who engaged in activities in a group reported higher elevations of happiness when in flow. However, athletes who engaged in activities solo experienced flow easier.”
Back out on the road on our long training run, we run into a group of fellow club members running the other way. We almost don’t see each other, so enjoyable is this morning’s run. It’s not always like that—maybe one run in fifty? But now I’ve tasted it, and know how it’s achieved, I’ll be chasing those flow states even more.
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source: The Guardian by Alex Lockwood