The Anatomy of a Runner: flow (the runner’s high)

A burglar is likely to experience flow, as is a con artist or an assassin. Flow is considered in the development of video games, sport psychology, computer programming, the design of playgrounds, the formation of business leaders, stand-up comedy, and in the high development training activities of Outdoor Leaders. Athletes, artists, musicians and Formula One drivers also experience flow.

Every activity in life may engender flow, but no activity can sustain it for long unless both the challenges and the skills become more complex.

flow: a level of involvement such that consciousness at hand and the doing of it blend; where action and awareness become indistinguishable.

In positive psychology, Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity…. complete absorption in what is doing.

Some runners report achieving flow, or in this case ‘the runner’s high,’ during a race or a tempo run – a run slightly below 10k race pace that is sufficiently taxing on the system but not an all-out effort.

Somewhere in this ideal zone runners lose themselves and reach a state where mind and body become one – the consciousness of running and the doing of it become indistinguishable.

According to Mihály Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”) who gave it the name, flow is completely focused motivation; a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions. ”The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Csikszentmihalyi and his fellow researchers began researching flow after Csikszentmihalyi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work. Artists, especially painters, become so immersed in their work that they disregard their need for food, water and even sleep.

He realized that it was the activity itself – the work of painting – that so enthralled his subjects and not, as he had expected, the anticipation of its outcome or extrinsic rewards. In Csikszentmihalyi’s initial 1975 studies, people described their experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along – and thus his source for the name flow.

Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance. In a study performed with professional classical pianists, heart rate and blood pressure decreased and the major facial muscles relaxed while the pianists were in the flow state. This study emphasized that flow is a state of effortless attention. In spite of this effortlessness and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist improved during the flow state.

Drummers experience a state of flow when they sense a collective energy that drives the beat, something they refer to as getting into the groove or entrainment. Bass guitarists often describe a state of flow as being in the pocket. Surfers call it the surfer’s high.

Historical sources hint that Michelangelo may have painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel while in a flow state. Winning coach Jimmy Johnson credited flow with helping him and his Dallas Cowboys prepare for the 1993 Superbowl.

Each of these flow-producing activities requires an initial investment of attention and skills development before it can be enjoyable. If a person lacks the discipline to overcome this initial obstacle, he or she may find the state of flow impossible to achieve.

SOME CAN FLOW MORE THAN OTHERS….

Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with specific personality traits may be able to achieve flow more often than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only; known as an autotelic personality.

People with autotelic tendencies are internally driven and may also exhibit a sense of purpose and humility – this determination being different from an externally driven personality where things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force. Autotelic personalities also learn to enjoy situations that other people consider miserable.

One researcher (Abuhamdeh, 2000) found that people with an autotelic personality have a greater preference for “high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth.” It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to enter the flow state.

THE PSYCHOLOGY. Almost any activity can produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can. Flow is not dependent on external events, but is the result of our ability to focus.

In every given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to our brain. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time – about 126 bits of information per second (Csikszentmihalyi’s 1956 study). Decoding speech, for example, takes about 40 bits of information per second; about 1/3 of our total capacity.

For the most part (except for innate basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain), we decide what we want to focus our attention on. When we are in the flow state, however, we are completely engrossed with the task at hand – without making the conscious decision to do so.

Awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs is non-existent. This occurs because our total attention is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.

THE SCIENCE. The internet lit up in 2015 when German researchers discovered the brain’s endocannabinoid system — the same one affected by marijuana’s Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — may also play a role in producing the runner’s high, (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2015, DOI: 10.1072/pnas.1514996112).

For decades, it was hypothesized that exercise-induced endorphin release was solely responsible for a runner’s high. These researchers observed, however, that endorphins can’t pass through the blood-brain barrier. On the other hand, a lipid-soluble endocannabinoid called anandamide—also found at high levels in people’s blood after running—can travel from the blood into the brain, where it can trigger a high. Scientists agree more studies are needed since these conclusions were based on mice not humans, but it brings us a step closer to understanding the science behind the high.

HOW TO GET THERE. To achieve and maintain a flow experience, a balance is reached between the challenge of the activity and the runner’s ability.

If the challenge is greater than the ability, the activity becomes overwhelming and creates anxiety. Anxiety also occurs when the challenge exceeds our perceived skill level.

If the challenge is lower than ability, boredom ensues.

Apathy is characterized when the challenge is low, and one’s skill level is low – producing a general lack of interest.

A state of flow occurs when the challenge matches skill.

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A 1997 study by Csíkszentmihályi also determined that flow is more likely to occur when the activity at hand is a higher-than-average challenge and the individual has above-average skills.

Defined within the parameters of a runner’s high, one could then assume flow would not be achieved when:

  • pace is too slow and effortless as compared to the runner’s skill level (boredom);
  • the runner has no interest in running (apathy);
  • pace or terrain, level of difficulty is too challenging (anxiety).

FLOW CONDITIONS:

  • Knowing what to do
  • Knowing how to do it
  • Knowing how well you are doing (immediate feedback)
  • High perceived challenges
  • High perceived skills
  • Freedom from distractions

It’s important to repeat that the key to achieving flow is in one’s ability to focus.

A violinist will focus all their energy on feeling the strings or the bow with the fingers, following the notes on the score, and at the same time feel the emotional content of the music as a whole. Irrelevant thoughts, worries, or distractions no longer have a chance to appear in consciousness. There is no room. They are totally immersed and focused on the task at hand.

Similarly runners will feel a focus on running: the fluidity of the stride and the rhythm of breathing, the immediate feedback of feeling confident and comfortable in the effort – an exhilaration from performing a challenging task.

Some runners experience flow early in a run, near a 10k pace, or several hours into a long run, depending on their experience and skill level.

If there is a way to induce flow, it is by training the mind to focus. Techniques of meditation or yoga traditions train the ability to concentrate attention and limit awareness to specific goals and may be helpful in creating the conditions for flow.

THE GROWTH PRINCIPLE. Flow experiences imply a growth principle. When in a flow state, we are working to master the activity at hand. To maintain and achieve a subsequent flow state, however, we must eventually seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches our skills and we emerge stronger, more competent, and with a greater sense of personal satisfaction.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book on the subject, “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning,” where he argues that with increased experiences of flow, people experience growth towards complexity, in which people flourish as their achievements grow.

In the long run, flow experiences in a specific activity may lead to higher performance in that activity as flow is positively correlated with a higher motivation to perform and to perform well.

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