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Finding “The Zone” – How Runners Achieve Flow

Chart Describing FlowTo some, running is a chore, a punishment, a burden, or a necessary evil. Those people probably aren’t visiting this website. Competitive and the majority of recreational runners run because they want to – not because they are forced. But, even though most runners choose to run, not everyone truly enjoys or loves it. People have different motivations, whether they think it will help them lose weight, get healthy, contribute to a cause – some ulterior motive.

Long-time runners love running. Many of them speak of running as a “release” or a “way to decompress”. Still others use it as a way to spur creativity, or as a way to focus on a single thing for a period of time. The one thing that all of these responses have in common is that at they are all non-competitive reasons. They all come from a place of zen-like calmness, not competitiveness. So if these people can learn to enjoy running, there is no reason that you can’t learn from them. Let’s explore this concept further.

What is Flow?

Flow is a concept popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For those that are new to the concept, it’s basically a scientific breakdown of what athletes refer to as “The Zone”. It’s a brief and fleeting period of euphoria where your skill levels are matched exactly to your task’s level of difficulty (see the chart above I designed, taken from Csikszentmihalyi’s book) . If you’re bored, your skill exceeds the challenge. If you’re anxious (struggling), the challenge exceeds your skill level.

The most obvious example of this is performance based, similar to other athletes.  If a runner is suffering during his or her run, dialing the intensity back will produce a more enjoyable experience. If a runner is bored, increasing the intensity of the run will lead to a more enjoyable experience. Now, if you’re competitive or experienced, this may seem obvious and might not be good for your training regimen. However, to runners with motivational issues, insights like this can make the difference between quitting entirely and sticking with it.

One of the neat things about running is that it can lead you into flow in a non-competitive way. It depends on your goal. If your goal is to focus on a specific task, you can do it. Even if your goal is something general – like “get healthier” – running can make you feel the satisfaction of flow. Testing your limits? You can do it. Raising money for charity? That too.

How to Achieve Flow

To achieve flow, you must meet several criteria.

  • (A) Intense, focused concentration on the present moment
  • (B) Merging of action and awareness
  • (C) Loss of self-consciousness
  • (D) A sense of personal control over the situation
  • (E) A distorted temporal experience (losing track of time)
  • (F) Autotelic experience (the activity is intrinsically rewarding)

You can achieve each of these individually, but only doing so collectively will allow you to experience flow. Luckily, they are all closely related in psychological terms, so it’s easier to achieve than it may seem. Once you become aware of flow, the tricky part becomes focusing your concentration on the activity. You set out to achieve flow, but you can’t be in a flow state if you’re focusing on flow and not the task at hand. In other words, you can’t just go out and say “Gee, it’s nice outside. I think I’m going to get in The Zone today.” So there’s that. But you can take several steps to achieve the six criteria.

  1. You must give definition and structure to the task. This almost always means setting clear, specific goals and defining success – at what point have you accomplished that goal?
  2. You must balance your perceived skill level with the perceived level of difficulty (see the chart above)
  3. You must have immediate feedback. This allows you to adjust your performance to maintain a flow state.

An Example:

When we talked earlier about reducing your intensity if you were struggling with your run. If your goal is to keep running without quitting, adjusting your intensity keeps you in flow or moves you towards a state of flow. You need the feedback (3) so you can balance your skill level (2) – but the adjustment may be different implications depending on your specific goal (1). Slowing down will help you achieve flow if your goal is to not quit. But it will move you farther away from flow if your goal is to win the Boston marathon. Making this adjustment requires intense concentration (A) and the merging of awareness and action (B), which lead you to a loss of self-consciousness (C) and losing track of time (E). None of it matters if you are forced to run and don’t find your goal intrinsically rewarding (F). And of course, if you’re injured, are unable to adjust your performance, therefore losing control over the situation (D).

And you thought I wasn’t going to work staying healthy and injury-free into this!

Can You Use Music to Achieve Flow?

I wrote previously about the effect of music on runners. A lot of the discussion revolved around associators and dissociators. Music didn’t help associators, because they were focused on running. But it did help dissociators improve their performance.

The answer to the question is definitely yes. Music is very structured, and therefore can help you focus on your specific goal.

Know You’re In The Zone

Now you know that (a) flow and The Zone are the same thing and (b) you know how to set yourself up in situations conducive to flow, the question then becomes “How can you tell you’re in the zone?”

The short answer: you feel awesome. It’s a happy feeling. You feel like you can conquer your activity. Even if it’s early in the journey to completing your goal, everything seems achievable and you know you’re well on your way. You’re so confident in the moment – you can’t lose.

Sources/Further Reading:

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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October 30th, 2012
Written By: Brett



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