Fitness: The runner’s high and how to find your flow

Fitness: The runner’s high and how to find your flow

Giving yourself the freedom to change goals on the fly based on how you feel makes running less of a chore and helps get you into the zone.

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If you’ve ever experienced a “runner’s high,” you know how it feels when everything clicks.

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Each stride feels effortless, the world around you fades and a quiet confidence replaces negative thoughts. Also referred to as “being in the zone” or in a “flow state,” this unique sense of wellbeing isn’t limited to runners. Athletes from all sports, recreational to elite, have found themselves in the zone.

But like much of life’s pleasures, flow is elusive, with little predictability as to when it will arrive. Given its tenuousness, not to mention its reported presence in an overwhelming number of athletes who have achieved personal bests, it’s not surprising that the exercise community is invested in finding out how to induce flow at will. Music, meditation, mindfulness, mental imagery and self-talk show some promise for getting into the zone, but with little reliability. And since no one knows exactly what triggers flow, it’s tough to replicate in a controlled environment where it can be repeatedly reproduced and studied.

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“Despite an increasing body of research, flow researchers still lack efficacious skills and strategies to assist athletes and exercisers to reliably experience flow,” said a team of Australian researchers from Southern Cross University.

Acknowledging the difficulties of replicating a flow state in a lab, the Australian researchers decided the best way to gather more info was to interview runners who’ve had the experience. The small sample included nine recreational, three semi-elite, one elite and one world-class runner. Their experiences allowed the research team to identify some common themes around flow. Armed with these tools, they hope athletes can tap into the “immersive, motivating and effortless psychological state of flow” more often.

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“This study builds upon existing flow intervention literature by enabling end-user perspectives to not only inform what factors are important in the occurrence and experience of flow, but also convey how this could be replicated or accomplished using different intervention strategies.”

Here are a few tips for getting yourself into the zone.

Embrace the novel

Stepping away from the routine by discovering a new route, running in a new city or trying a new training program freed runners from comparing their efforts to previous workouts. When the focus shifts away from familiar expectations like checking pace against recognizable landmarks, running becomes less prescriptive and more intuitive, allowing runners to stay in the moment and flow to flourish. While change doesn’t come easy to exercisers, who are often creatures of habit, understanding that mixing it up increases the chances of tapping into a runners’ high may be the incentive needed to try something new more often.

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Set open goals

Most runners set out for a training run with a goal in mind, like running at a specific pace or distance or finishing in a certain time. But not every run feels the same, so sometimes a goal set before lacing up your shoes is more challenging than anticipated. Most runners do their darnedest to ignore how they feel and tough it out to satisfy their goal, which can ruin the experience. But runners who were able to adjust their goals based on how they felt were more likely to find themselves in the zone. Giving yourself the freedom to change goals on the fly based on how you feel makes running less of a chore. It’s also more likely to make flow happen.

Manage feedback

These days runners get an overabundance of feedback. From the internal signals the body gives during a workout to statistics and motivational cues broadcast every kilometre via earbuds and a smartwatch, runners always know how they’re doing. Yet, according to the runners polled by the Australian research team, too much feedback inhibits flow.

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“Although quantitative feedback is conventional and typically beneficial in sport, exercise and performance contexts, these runners reported it to be detrimental to the occurrence of flow states while running. Thus, it should be avoided in flow interventions,” the researchers said.

Yet not all feedback makes it tough to get into the zone. On days when feedback is overwhelmingly positive, confidence builds and flow finds its way in.

Focus on the right things

When athletes talk about their flow experiences, they report that the outside world disappears, with focus acutely tuned to the task. As such, any conditions that take runners’ attention away from their efforts — unfavourable weather, too many forced changes in pace due to crowded sidewalks or streets busy with traffic, running and talking with a friend — means getting in the zone is unlikely.

But too much focus on internal cues was also reported as inhibiting flow. Listening to music or letting the sound or sights of nature into your run led to less focus on effort and feelings of doubt and more on pleasurable distractions.

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