The Pleasure of Flow

AJWs TaproomMy long time friend and 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 reflect on a 20-year career in ultrarunning.

One of the most compelling thinkers Andy and I have discussed while pounding out the miles on the trail is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high-ee). Csíkszentmihályi is most famously known as the architect of the notion of flow; in Csíkszentmihályi’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. Csíkszentmihályi 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.”

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. Add to that the component of competition on ultrarunning’s greatest stage and you have the makings of a downright flowfest.

In my experience, those runners who enjoy the most success at Western States and other high profile races are those that can get themselves quickly into the flow state and remain there throughout the day. It is intensely exhausting to stay focused for so long, but to do so is to truly revel in what is, to many, the crowning achievement of their running lives and in the process of this revelation the event actually becomes secondary.

As I sit here on the cusp of spring I find myself longing for that flow state. Honestly, in that moment of clarity, there is no place I’d rather be.

In 2005, when I finished my third Western States, I distinctly recall finding that place of flow relatively early on (I think around Red Star Ridge) and carrying it with me all through the day. By the time I reached the Green Gate Aid Station 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!

As runners across the country and around the world prepare for their summer challenges, it is my hope that you all find a way to enter into the flow state and become one with the experience of running. It’s worth every minute of preparation to get there.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Monkeyboy’s Beer of the Week

pFriem Family BrewersThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from guest beer reviewer Scott Wolfe:

In celebration of the fourth MUC race in the Gorge this weekend and the wet weather that is scheduled to hit the gorge, a great après run way of celebrating your run would be to head up the road to Hood River, Oregon and visit the Pfriem Family Brewers and warm up with a glass of the Belgian Strong Dark. A 2014 beer of the year in the Portland Beer Guide, the taste is complex like the weather in Flanders, but unfolds with a spicy chocolate finish and smooth sipping that you won’t want to rush your way through. A perfect way to reflect on a 4 a.m. start and long day enjoying the waterfalls and singletrack of the Columbia River Gorge. The simple satisfaction of a beer and run well done.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • When have you last seen or experienced flow in running?
  • Do you have a favorite memory of running in a flow state?
  • Have you found any methods by which you can facilitate transitioning into a flow state?

There are 2 comments

  1. Runners_Connect

    Great post Andy! Very interesting, and you bring up some great points. It makes a lot of sense, and goes along with the idea that we generally run our best when we are not placing pressure on performance, but instead are just enjoying the simplicity of running for what it is. Finding a state of flow is often easier than most runners realize, if they would only slow down a little to let their body get there! Thanks for sharing!

    1. mountain_troll

      It is worth pointing out that the flow state, as defined by Csikszentmihalyi, is not merely an easy going dream state, as many people assume. Rather it is a specifically defined state, that is actually highly related to focused concentration and goal attainment. The central premise to achieving this state is that there must be a balance between the challenge presented and an individual's skill level. A challenge that is either too easy, or too difficult, will not allow one to reach the flow state. Killian, for instance, might reach his flow state while running down a technical scree field…we all have a level of difficulty that would put us into that level of intense focus that allows flow to happen.

    2. @SageCanaday

      Agree with what Mountain_troll says. Csikezentmihalyi outlines this in his books "Flow" and "Flow in Sports." While initially fleeting, he discusses the parameters that allow one to harness flow more often and the delicate challenge/skill balance. I've actually found it to occur in the most intense moments of competition (and sometimes pain) and the experience isn't a "numbing of pain" but more a detachment from it and a warped sense of time. All 100% focus in on the task at hand and the body/mind connection is totally in sync. There is nothing external to worry about because everything is totally dialed-in.

      I've experience flow a few times: A mile of the first rocky descent at Speedgoat, The last 4-minutes of the Pikes Peak Ascent (maybe it was oxygen deprivation though as there was intense pain leading into this!), and a 5km cross country race at the district meet my senior year in high school (that I had mentally visualized for over 1 month prior to the race.).

      I wish these periods of flow would last longer, but I'm still learning how to harness it (I think mental preparation and visualization leading into a race helps as well as having precise goals helped).

      That being said, it can be applied to all other sports and things like music as well. It may be viewed as a continuum….a moving spectrum of sorts – and episodes of more mild flow could be achieved in practice/training organically if the right elements are at play. If anything, it hones into our desire for continual self-improvement in sport or any of life's myriad of challenging activities.

      1. ajoneswilkins

        Thanks Sage, lucky guy. My one and only true flow moment, in the pure sense about which MC speaks, was that day at WS in 2005. That said, I will carry that profound memory with me to my grave. Wish everyone could experience it.

  2. Andy

    I have certainly experienced those periods of flow, probably more often on training runs than in races, but certainly both. Body, mind, spirit, and earth all in perfect harmony with each effortless footfall. "Alluring, addicting, and empowering" indeed.

    As for Bryon's question about how to facilitate that flow state, it sounds like letting some of Monkeyboy's recommendation flow would be a good place to start!

  3. Scott

    Interesting thoughts, AJW! One question that pertains less to flow and more to your first paragraph–can you say more about Andy Roth's idea of the "secular pilgrimage"? Sounds very cool and worthy of a Taproom post!


    1. @mleighp

      I'd second that call for a Taproom post on the subject of 100's as secular pilgrimages.

      There's a connection inherent in the concept of "ultra." The traditional greeting among pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain is "Ultreïa!"–roughly translated as "beyond" or "onward."

  4. @EasyStej

    Great piece AJW. It's kind of ironic, that so many of us strive for that state of flow, or zen, yet it's almost impossible to find it by looking for it, you know? It just kind of, well, happens sometimes, when we're not expecting it, or at least not looking for it. That being said, I've noticed that it becomes a lot more common when we: 1) Choose a task we love (running…?), 2) Make sure that this task is challenging, but not too difficult, 3) Clear away distractions, and 4) Focus on the task at hand, for as long as is possible.

    Then maybe, just maybe, that magical feeling will arrive.

    Happy searching everyone, and thanks again AJW.

  5. senelly

    Thank you AJW for this wonderful post!

    Two additional thoughts: 1) As a high school distance coach, I taught flow as what I called "relaxed focus"… that state of mind and body in which all parts of the body and mind that were not being used were fully relaxed (drooling was good). And, with woefully inadequate mileage under my belt, I used that at WS for an easy PR. 2) Flow can and needs to be be practiced… on all kinds of runs and races. If you can do it in training, you can do it in a big race.

    Lastly, one can use and experience flow in any activity… but it's way easier when doing something one loves.

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