The Flow State and How it is Achieved

Some days running just clicks. Running feels effortless and can go on forever with minimal strain. The same workout may be hard on some days, but today it is not. As a distance runner, no matter how hard you run you cannot make yourself hurt. This type of running produces utter joy and bliss. Nearly all runners or athletes have experienced this state, but few can explain or replicate it. This is the state of flow, and is described by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) as the optimal balance between skill and demand. The advantage of experiencing flow is sheer enjoyment, which may also result in increased confidence and love for running. If a runner has the ability to achieve objectives in practice and experience flow, that runner will likely have increased confidence come race day.

Flow can be a difficult state to understand, but Jackson and Marsh (1996) created the Flow State Scale (FSS) in an attempt to measure the existence of flow during an activity. Examining the sub-scales of the FSS, as listed below, allows for a better understanding of what flow really is and how it achieve it in an activity. A runner need not meet all the below criterion to experience a flow state, but the sense of flow will be greatest when all the sub-scales are met to the highest degree. 

Action-Awareness Merging: The individual is so deeply involved in the task that action is automatic. The performer does not think about running, but just does it. The runner may even feel machine-like because running feels so smooth and automatic.

Clear Goals: Unambiguous objectives give the runner a clear idea of what needs to be accomplished. For example, a clear workout objective may be to run 10 by a quarter in 65 seconds with 2 minutes rest.

Unambiguous Feedback: The runner receives clear and immediate feedback, which could include a time for the interval or instruction from a coach.

Concentration on the Task at Hand: The runner is completely focused on the task. While running, the performer thinks only about running and not about other aspects of life, or even how much running may hurt at the time. During a state of flow, running does not hurt no matter how great the demands.

Sense of Control: The runner has a clear feeling of control, but does not have to focus on gaining control. It is easy for the runner to power up hills or surge on a competitor without experiencing a feeling of great effort.

Loss of Self-Consciousness: The runner does not think about how they may appear, but is rather focused only on doing the activity. This could also include losing consciousness of the crowd, other competitors, or the scenery.

Transformation of Time: The perception of time may be altered, whereby time either feels as if it slows down or speeds up. The former is more likely to occur in ball sports, while the latter is likely to indicate flow during distance running.

Autotelic Experience: The activity is intrinsically rewarding and is done for its own sake. An individual is likely to find utter joy with the act of running itself, and not have a preoccupation with time or performance against others.

Challenge-Skill Balance: The runner experiences equality between situational challenges and personal skills, especially when challenges and skills are at a high level. Runners are certainly more likely to meet demands with required skills when demands are exceptionally low. For example, Dathan Ritzenhein certainly has the skill to jog at 7:30 pace to recover from a workout if Alberto Salazar asks him to do this. Yet that doesn't mean Dathan will experience the flow state since his skills meet the demands of the workout. The flow state is far more enjoyable when the demands are high. So if Salazar asks Ritz to run an 18 mile tempo run at 5:00 pace and Ritz nails the pace, running more effortlessly than he expects, he will most certainly experience flow. 

Flow can be mysterious and difficult to achieve, but there are things that every runner can do to increase the likelihood that they will experience the flow state. The easy way to experience flow is to feel good on every run and to hit each workout, even the most challenging ones, with relative ease. This would be the way to match skill with demands. Yet this is easier said than done. Those that run regularly and train heavily realize that effortless feelings while running at challenging paces are difficult to come by, and even more difficult to explain. It is far easier to change mental focus before and during running to increase the likelihood that you will experience flow. Before you run, drop any preconceived expectations that you will have some phenomenal performance. This lessens the level of challenge and makes it more likely that your physical skills on that day will be able to match the challenge, even if you feel suboptimal. By lessening your focus on performance you will allow yourself to enjoy running for its own sake, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will have an autotelic experience. During the run, be sure to associate rather than dissociate (as discussed in a prior column). This will increase the level of action-awareness merging, concentration on the task at hand, and will promote a loss of self-consciousness. It is difficult to do anything that increases the likelihood that you will experience a transformation of time and this is in fact the most illusive component of flow. Yet if you focus on altering the other components, transformation of time may come. You certainly cannot expect to experience flow on a daily basis if you do these things, but you may increase your chances of achieving the state. But a flow experience may provide a great boost of confidence and may be the most positive emotional state in all of running (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), so it is certainly an experience to strive for. 

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Jackson, S.A., & Marsh, H.W. (1996). Development and validation of a scale to measure optimal experience: The flow state scale. Journal of 

Sport & Exercise Psychology, 18, 17-35.

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