Everyone knows that running is good for you.
Search "the benefits of running” and you’ll be inundated with articles celebrating the seemingly endless physical perks of running, from increased strength to cardiovascular health to better blood sugar control. You’ll also be flooded by scientific research outlining the extensive mental health benefits like lower levels of stress and anxiety and elevated mood.
But what if we told you running can make you more innovative?
Enter, flow states.
What is a flow state?
The Flow Research Collective, a peak performance research and training organization, describes flow as;
“Those moments of rapt attention and total absorption when you get so focused on the task at hand, everything else disappears. Action and awareness merge, your sense of self vanishes. Time passes strangely – and performance soars.”
Flow impacts both physical and mental performance. Physically: strength, endurance, and even muscle reaction time all increase. On the cognitive performance side, motivation, innovation, learning and academic achievement, productivity, artistic talent and even creativity all significantly increase when in a state of Flow.
The reason flow increases cognitive performance and creativity is that it allows for different networks of the brain to interact in very dynamic and unusual ways. This is in part due to the release of neurochemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine that help the brain with things like motivation and directing our attention. During flow, attention gets laser-focused, your default inner critic is silenced, pattern recognition and motivation get dialed up, while mood and emotion become positive. The brain literally becomes an innovation engine.
What does flow feel like?
People often describe being in a flow state as that feeling where every action, every decision, seems to flow effortlessly, perfectly, seamlessly from one to the other. And it can happen during almost any activity, from something as mundane as folding laundry to playing in a championship game.
More scientifically, flow states almost always correlate with these six core characteristics:
- Complete concentration – total absorption in the activity being performed
- Merger of action and awareness – a feeling of oneness, where the self and the activity cannot be distinguished
- Vanishing sense of self – a feeling of getting out of our own way, also called ego dissolution
- Altered sense of time – time dilation where only the now is experienced
- Deep sense of control – a feeling that one is in control of the experience and task at hand
- Autotelic experience – the activity is intrinsically rewarding so we do the activity for its own sake, and we come back to it again and again.
What can I do to reach a flow state while running?
To set the stage for flow during running, you need to follow a principled, intentional process.
- First, set clear, longer-term, but also moment-by-moment goals and keep track of your progress.
- Maintain complete concentration on the task–deeply internalize how your body is moving.
- And perhaps most importantly, consistently fine-tune the balance between your skills and the perceived challenge of the run, always paying attention to when you need to make it slightly more difficult.
We’ve taken what we learned above and simplified it into an easy-to-follow run guide to help you find your flow and prime your brain for innovative thinking.
Chasing the flow state
This 30-days run plan is designed to help you build a running foundation and to achieve a flow state during runs. At the end of the four weeks, you should feel confident in your running, and start seeing its powerful effects on your ability to ideate.
Fueling the flow state
Finding flow takes practice. Try a new way to fuel your flow each week.
Fuel 1: Run outdoors. Being in nature is known to fuel flow.
Fuel 2: Run without distraction. No music or podcasts.
Fuel 3: Run on a trail. Use unpredictable terrain to keep your mind active.
Fuel 4: Run with friends. A social element can help you share in the flow.
The more you run, the more you’ll realize what neuroscience is uncovering: running directly changes the structure and function of the brain, the seat of our cognition, and consciousness. It primes the brain for creating new insights and leads to the realm of transcendent experiences, where the ego dissolves, where science meets spirit, and creativity abounds. As author Kristin Armstrong once remarked,
“There is something magical about running; after a certain distance, it transcends the body. Then a bit further, it transcends the mind. A bit further yet, and what you have before you, laid bare, is the soul.”
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