A blog by runners. For runners.

Runner’s high: How to get, and stay, in ‘flow’

Runner's high: how to get and stay in the flow

We all know that amazing feeling when you become so completely absorbed in your run that it feels effortless; when an hour feels like 10 minutes, you don’t have a worry in the world and you have a stupid grin on your face. This is flow – the state originally identified by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state of complete absorption in one’s activity, in which “every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.”

Flow has been shown to boost not only creativity and productivity, but also athletic performance. It has also been found to increase overall quality of life – people who experience flow more frequently have been shown to be happier overall and exhibit higher concentration, higher self-esteem and even better health.  

In order to get into flow, you must be “intrinsically motivated” to be running (i.e. not feel that you are required to do it by anyone or anything); it must be challenging but not too difficult, you should feel as though you are in control and you must receive immediate feedback throughout the activity. 

Here are some tips for switching on and prolonging flow during your workouts:

  • Train consistently: Potentially the most important factor in achieving flow is having your task be challenging enough for your skill level (but not too challenging). The more consistently you train, the easier it will be for you to identify your strengths and challenges are as a runner, and thus to know how to adjust your training appropriately. It will also be easier for you to know what kinds of tasks are enjoyable for you so that you can go out for the run without feeling like you have to. This will contribute to that ‘intrinsic motivation’ factor.
  • Set your goals wisely: Having clear goals is another important factor that helps to get into the flow state. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every time you go for a run, you have to be training for your next race PR. But it does mean that you should leave the house with a concrete goal for your training session – whether that goal is to run a certain tempo or simply to capture a beautiful sunset photo. More ideas for non-PR running goals.
  • Stay present. The best way to get into flow and stay there longer is to pay attention to clear and immediate feedback, and adjust accordingly. This means listening to your body carefully, and keeping focus on how you feel. If you feel stressed, winded, or strained in any way, then the challenge of your workout is exceeding your current ability, and you should dial it back. If, on the other hand, you feel bored, your mind is wandering to thoughts of work or day-to-day minutia, or you don’t feel like you’re working out at all, that’s an indication that your skill level exceeds the challenge of this workout, and you should kick things up a notch. The best way to train this body focus is by practicing regular meditation, whether seated or running.
  • Stay positive. If you get ‘kicked out’ of flow, the best way to restore it is through relaxation and positive thinking. That means silencing the inner critic in your head and focusing on what you’re enjoying in your workout.  
  • Do something new, different, or scary. Another potential contributor to flow state is one often seen in extreme sports: the element of risk. This doesn’t mean you have to go running along the side of a cliff; simply doing a task differently from the way you normally do it can help increase your level of focus, interest, and attention on the task, which can help you to get into flow faster. This is an instance where it can be helpful to set goals that scare you.
  • Listen to music. A final ‘hack’ that is frequently used by athletes is one you likely already employ – listen to music that makes you happy, and that helps you set your favorite pace. Music has been shown to enhance flow and boost performance in athletes. In fact, music and performance researcher Dr. Costas Karageorghis has actually said that “music can be thought of as a type of legal performance-enhancing drug” precisely because it helps athletes to get into flow, reduce unpleasant thoughts, boost concentration and increase positive emotions.

The best thing about flow is that absolutely everyone can experience it, and it’s even easier for regular runners than for non-athletes. Do you have any favorite tricks for getting into, and staying in, “the zone”? 

Written by Varia Makagonova.