Flow: The Path to Optimal Experience

AJWs TaproomMost of us know the feeling: You’re a couple hours into a run and time seems irrelevant. Pretty soon you forget about the weather, the slight twinge in your ankle, the to-do list at home, and the fact that you’re running out of water. In fact, all you want to do, all you want to think about, all you want to experience, is the simple feeling of propelling yourself through space under your own power. All you want, in short, is flow.

My first pacer, Andy Roth, has always inspired me with his insights about running and life. In particular, his notion of 100-mile races as “secular pilgrimages” has consistently fascinated me and continues to gain traction in my mind as I grow older.

One of the most compelling thinkers Andy and I have discussed while pounding out the miles on the trail is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high-ee). Csikszentmihalyi is most famously known as the architect of the notion of flow; in Csikszentmihalyi’s research he has discovered that humans enter into a flow state when fully absorbed in an activity during which they lose their sense of time, place and often experience overwhelming feelings of satisfaction. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. 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.” Distilled to its essence, flow enables human beings to enter a state of optimal experience.

Obviously, and not surprisingly, this notion of flow is important in athletics and, I would suggest, particularly important in endurance running. In fact, I would argue that the achievement of the flow state is what draws many people to long-distance endurance running in the first place. Call it the “runners high” or endorphins or whatever, regardless of the name, the feeling of being completely absorbed in the act of running is at once alluring, addicting, and empowering.

It is intensely exhausting to stay focused for so long in doing something that is so hard. However, to do something so hard for so long is to truly revel in what is, to many, the ultimate goal of the running endeavor. In the revelation of understanding what it means to enter the flow state the actual event becomes secondary to the basic experience. It’s not a bad metaphor for life, actually.

In 2005 when I finished my 3rd Western States, I distinctly recall finding that place of flow relatively early on in the event (I think around Red Star Ridge – Mile 17) and carrying it with me all through the day. By the time I reached the Green Gate Aid Station (Mile 80) I literally could not wipe the smile off my face and, upon reaching the Highway 49 Aid Station, I was in such a state of flow-induced euphoria that I needed my crew to point out that it was still actually light out and that I had completely dropped my pacer!

I honestly hope everyone enjoys at least one experience like my 2005 Western States once in a lifetime. Not because it’s something to tell your grandkids about but rather because, in the end, it’s what makes pounding out the miles day after day, month after month, year after year, worth it.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Dale's Pale AleThis week’s Beer of the Week is Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues Brewery. Served in a simple can from an even simpler pub/brewery in Colorado, Dale’s has had a cult following for years. A classic American Pale Ale in the style of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Liberty Ale this is a beer that brings stability to an otherwise moving target. The taste is just right, especially when served ice cold, and it goes down smooth and easy (like a noontime run under the sun in the Front Range).

Call for Comments (from Bryon)
When have you felt flow in running or in other pursuits?

There are 39 comments

  1. Dylan Bowman

    Just saw a film at the local theatre called "Happy" in which they discuss Flow quite extensively while exploring what causes happiness in humans. They also talk a lot about how exercise contributes to the whole equation. Quite interesting. Highly recommend.

  2. Ryan

    Good article. Yogis and Taoists have known about, researched, and written about the concept for flow for thousands of years. I'm not sure how the guy you mentioned got classified as "the architect of the notion of flow" because he is certainly not the first person to speak about this. The entire Taoist concept is built around this principle.

    1. AJW

      Thanks Ryan, not sure either. Perhaps it's because he wrote a book about it. But yes, the ideas have been around for centuries.

    2. Jason

      I think b/c his book, by the same title, is an accessible distillation of the concept as applied to a modern, western, culture. He's certainly not the first to discuss the idea, and in fact, the book acknowledges the ancient wisdom and relative simplicity of the idea; but also the difficulty of reaching that state.

  3. Alex from New Haven

    Training on Cal Loop and ALT are pretty flow inducing for me. Rolling, runnable, winding single track. Once running from FH to sandy bottom on a perfect Spring day we stopped to see the flowers and realized I'd hardly paused or blinked in 2 hours… almost hypnotized. Great stuff.

  4. briderdt

    My first experience with "flow" was on a mountain biking trip to Moab, UT, on the Poison Spider Mesa trail. There was a long downhill with many rock drop-offs and shelves to negotiate. I remember at one point just letting the brakes go… My mind was totally focused, but the correct line through all the rocks and scree just seemed so obvious, it was like seeing a painted and highlighted path. I very soon left my mates behind, just riding in that state… I had no idea HOW far ahead I'd gotten until I made it to the bottom, and had to wait a good 15 minutes for them to catch up.

  5. James D

    Great article! I used to teach music at the collegiate level and used this book with students who were taking auditions for jobs with orchestras.

    AJW: Have you any beers from the St Arnold brewery in Houston? Great stuff. I'll have a few on me at Hells Hills and, if I'm still cognizant after the 50 miler, will try to get one to Bryon

  6. Michael Owen

    I cited and wrote a little about Csikszentmihalyi's flow experience last quarter for a paper targeting spirituality in wilderness. Interesting concept – practical as well.

  7. mushmouph

    is there a standout title? amazon listed far too many to select at random.

    whether on bike, ski, board, boat or foot flow is what i seek.

  8. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Thanks for writing about Csikszentmihalyi. I've read about and thought a lot about his practices over the years, along with trying to practice mindfulness while running. For me, flow often comes in the later stages of a race (if I've paced and refueled well to avoid a bonk), when I'm running a "comfortably hard" or controlled effort tempo-ish pace. Mantras and imagery help get me there. This sounds corny, but I sometimes repeat "form and focus feel the flow." On downhills, I imagine being a stream of water that effortlessly flows down and over the path of least resistance. If I'm having a hard time time being present and positive, then I try a trick that forces me to focus only on what's around me: I imagine I'm running with a visually impaired runner and having to describe the course so the runner would be able to navigate it; e.g. "there's an oak tree on our left, a big rock up ahead; the manzanita branches are reddish brown…." etc. It forces me to observe and be present, which then helps get me in a mind frame for flow. I know I've achieved flow when the runner's high euphoria kicks in — that superlative feeling of doing something well, that you've trained for, and the payoff for all that training is it feels so good and right.

    OK, now I feel motivated to get out and run! Thanks for starting my day with this post.

  9. Rob Y

    I've had several "flow" experiences during ultras. The last 30 miles of Hardrock in 2008 come to mind. It was a blur but I was moving very well (relatively), very "in the zone" and covered that stretch (from Sherman to the finish) much faster than I ever have. Never felt like I was close to bonking, felt super strong and just kept motoring. It was unreal because I don't remember drinking or eating a whole lot either but I just kept gobbling up the miles and steadily moved up in position to finish 10th OA. Epic! Felt soooo easy! I've had other "flow" experiences as well, some equally memorable.

      1. Randy

        Good luck finding flow at Barkley,last time i was there,the only flow i saw was buckets of water pouring down the mountainsides,but if "flow"is a spiritual event,you will certainly get that at Barkley!

            1. Randy

              Looking forward to your twitter on Barkley Bryon,fast-paced action there,might as well read the books out there while waiting for the runners.

            2. AJW

              Bryon's no dummy, he's assigned me to Barkley "coverage". Now, I just need to figure out a way around this Dry County thing (honestly, didn't know there was such a thing)

  10. Sean

    Heading out for 24 in a few minutes; this post details exactly what i'm waiting for this glorious Friday afternoon! Good stuff!

    ALL the Oscar Blues brews are spectacular in my opinion; Gubna and Old Chub, although vastly different beers, are 2 of my GOAT drinks…mmm

  11. Jason

    I first read Csikszentmihaly's *Flow* in grad school (for education) as a way to promote "real" and meaningful learning. I suppose that's worthy goal for teachers, but I don't know that you can create "flow" for someone else. It's something that just happens, but once it's realized, says Csikszentmihaly, it's far easier to return to that state. I hadn't really started running when I first read the book. At that time, I was an adrenaline junkie and obsessed with whitewater kayaking. I immediately recognized "flow" as the state of being that I experienced on really technical [class V] rivers/creeks or when "surfing" rapids. It was one of the things that kept luring me back to the water. I gave up kayaking when I had a kid, and for a time, lost my connection with "flow." Ultrarunning has been one of the few things that takes me back to that "place" and I am so thankful for it!

  12. Mike Alfred

    This post was so good that I'm pretty sure I'm going to quit my job and become a monk. Just as soon as I finish this beer. Thanks AJ-dub.

    1. AJW

      Monks make good beer. In fact, for some, it's a job. But I would guess that most of them don't run (even though they have their entire menisci:)

  13. Neil

    Someone above spoke of mindfulness, mantras and imagery, I would argue that flow is quite the opposite of this.

    It is the state where we get optimum performance or put another way things just seem to be just right – but – without actually thinking, focusing or stressing about form , the run seems to feel just right and you are in the zone. Maybe the 'runners high ' is similar.

    Musicians are familiar with this, often the best performance, especially improv is reported in this state. They just let themselves go and allow the music to shine.

    Good post btw

    1. Zen Trail Clown

      Mindfulness is not the opposite, as long as mindfulness is "done correctly". It is important to distinguish between existing "within" awareness versus "with" awareness. When I am in the flow in running, I am existing "within" and do not have to apply effort (mantras, imagery, etc). Applying effort would be existing "with" awareness, and this is where most people get confused and frustrated about meditation and mindfulness. Applying effort typically leads to the opposite result we are seeking, whereas by going with the flow within Awareness itself, you can experience the equanimity we all "seek". Therefore mindfulness, if experienced "correctly", does not have to be the opposite of flow. The two "concepts" revolve in endless oscillation

  14. Bev

    Racing motorcycles always gave me that flow…well when things go right.

    I have been lucky to feel the flow on a few trail runs, just effortless painless and pure joy!!

    Love it!

  15. Josh Gum

    At one point early on in my discovery of the love for running, I had experienced a sensation one time… it felt as if my eyes were floating but the rest of my body was just carrying on unbeknownst to me. It didn't last for very long, but when I snapped out of it I had a tremendous amount of energy. Anymore, when I'm pushing particularly hard or just feeling awesome and "in the zone" I tend to feel tingly down the spine, body feels relaxed, and I just kind of zone out as time and miles pass by. Running is meditative, and being in nature just amplifies it!

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