Flow: The Path to Optimal Experience

AJW discusses “flow” and how it allows for optimal ultrarunning performance.

By on March 23, 2012 | Comments

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?

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.