Excerpted from Mindful Running by Mackenzie L. Havey, published by Bloomsbury (October 2017). Condensed and reproduced with permission of the publisher.
You know that visual effect in action movies when a bullet fires out of a gun in slow motion and the camera pans around the protagonist as they demonstrate their supersonic reflexes to dodge the deadly projectile? This illusion is known as “time slice photography” and it perfectly encapsulates what it is like to be in flow. It’s when time and space are suspended, and you perform and feel at your finest.
Reaching that heightened state of consciousness isn’t like a switch you can mindlessly turn on and off. As 2004 silver medalist and winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon Meb Keflezighi explains, “Achieving flow doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger … As an athlete I get there through movement. After a period of time, my mind starts to tune out distractions and I slip into that elevated state. Today, with so many years of experience, I can even get there on regular training runs.”
It is a mindful approach to your running practice that creates the right conditions for entering this supernatural headspace. Indeed, research published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology has demonstrated that as little as a month of mindfulness training can assist athletes in achieving flow. By existing in the present, monitoring thoughts and physical sensations, and fully engaging in forward motion, you train your brain to cross the Rubicon into that next-level state of mind.
Here’s how to train your brain:
- Focus. Tune into your surroundings, body and mind with nonjudgmental awareness. For instance, in bringing mindful awareness to your legs, you may have noticed that they were sore.
- Fathom. Consider the information you gathered in Step 1 and determine if adjustments need to be made. In our example, you must consider whether that leg soreness is part of the inherent discomfort that can come along with physical training or if perhaps you’re on the edge of overtraining and you should cut the run short. This is the insight required.
- Flow. Bring your attention to an anchor, either your feet or your breath, and you’ve created the conditions to enter into flow.
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Flow can be a tough thing to put into words, so here are a handful of Olympic and Paralympic runners from around the globe to get first-hand accounts of the flow experience.
Mohammed Ahmed, Canada, 2012 and 2016 Olympian, 5,000 and 10,000 meters
“When I am in the zone, there is a control and confidence. It’s a worry-free state, an ability to speed up and slow down at the drop of a dime, read a situation in seemingly slow-motion state and to visualize things before they have fully developed. It’s a state where you feel like you can’t be stopped and where things are done instinctually or intuitively with fluidity and laser focus.”
Alexi Pappas, United States/Greece, 2016 Olympian, 10,000 meters
“When I’m running and my mind and body are on the same page, it feels like I am in complete harmony with myself. It’s a very special feeling—a former coach of mine calls it ‘hyper-focus.’ I felt it most when I competed in the Olympics.”
Liz Yelling, Great Britain, 2004 and 2008 Olympian, Marathon
“Being in the zone in a race means being totally in the moment, you are only thinking about racing and running. In a short race, this is focused on tactics, pushing hard and tolerating pain. In a marathon, this is more about tuning in to pace and rhythm and maintaining that. Sometimes you also get the effortlessness when you are near a peak in fitness and everything from the training and mental state comes together for a great performance.”
Chaz Davis, United States, 2016 Paralympian, 1,500 and 5,000 meters
“When I’m in the racing zone, everything around me blurs and my focus only involves what is going on in front of me. This blur is both auditory and visual, and I am so in tune with my body that I’m able to hear my breathing and footsteps despite an immense crowd. I am hyper-focused on whatever goal I set for that particular race, and a lot of the time, I am able to do things that surprise me.”
Deena Kastor, United States, 2004 Olympian, Marathon
“It starts with an intention to create a mindset that allows flow to happen,” Olympian Deena Kastor says. “Flow can’t be forced, because a force is met with a counter force. Flow is something that has to happen without tension or pushing.”