It’s a question I get quite often.
“Why do you run so much, man? Gonna wreck your knees.”
“Dude, I always see you out running. Why do you do it?”
Or, my personal favorite: “You crazy?”
To be honest, I’ve never really had an answer that I can put in to words. Sure, the feeling I get when I run is quite surreal, but it’s not something that can be left at that. It’s something I lot more that that – something that makes me shelf all the fears of joint damage to lace up for another adventure.
I suppose I should start by talking about how I got started. Anyone who knows me well could tell you I love to play ultimate frisbee. Some of my fondest memories of high school were at the park, just tossing the disc around, or playing pick-up games over the summer. I became so in love with ultimate that I elected to forgo my senior golf season to play on our high school’s club team. However, the transition to an organized team was a bit more difficult than I had envisioned. Like basketball, we ran plays, both offensively and defensively. Suddenly, I was a role player in a system, and swaying more towards the logical and analytical side of life, I was constantly preoccupied with being in the right place at all times. While it’s important to run the cookie cutter plays effectively, I seemed to forget I was playing a game of Frisbee. Instead of operating instinctively, helping the disc handler when he was pressured, finding open space to advance the disk, or covering deep threats when they bolted, I was pre-occupied with being “where I was supposed to be.” This significantly hindered my playing, to the point where I looked very timid out on the field. Consequently, I received little playing time for the first part of the season, as I should have.
After one of the games, I was so upset with myself that I hadn’t displayed my ability to play, something that had come so naturally in pick-up games, that upon returning home I set out for a run. I didn’t know where I was going, and to be honest, that was the least of my worries. I knew that I didn’t want to take my frustrations out on anyone else, so I thought if I exhausted myself on a run, I’d have no energy left to be angry. As many do when they aren’t thinking rationally, I got a bit further from home than was necessary, and I felt myself pushing my legs to get back. It was at this point that I discovered flow.
The concept of flow was proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and describes “a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” It is in flow where one is so focused on what they are doing that all external distractions, and even consciousness of self, are blocked out. It is when people are in flow, Csikszentmihalyi argues, that they are at their happiest states.
For me, flow occurs most frequently when I run, which is why I do it. It is a feeling of total absorption, as though everything is controlled. In fact, there are times when I am in such a flow state that I forget that I am running, and seem to float across the landscape. Now, this may seem a bit odd to folks who don’t run, so let me first say that flow does not come right away. Because it is a total involvement of mind and body, it requires a honing of a skill to reach this point. From this respect, flow is complex in that it mandates a deep investment from a person. Yet, it certainly isn’t limited to running. Flow is something felt by musicians, dancers, athletes, singers, and many more. When a violinist is deep in a musical passage, often he or she is so absorbed in the music that an external distraction, like a person blowing their nose, or even an internal distraction, like a difficult key change, will go totally unnoticed as the notes spring off the bow. In basketball, flow is often referred to as “having the hot hand.” Now, scientific research has proven that making one basket does not increase your chances of making the next. However, it fails to distinguish players who were simply open and took a few shots in a row from players who were totally embraced in the moment.
The point is, optimal performance is achieved when a person’s mind and body are in the flow state, because it is here where he or she has focused total energy on the task at hand, and have omitted all fears, worries, precautions, or distractions from their mind.
Thus is the reason why I run. I can compose this answer in words today as I am presently reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book on the topic. Now, a cynic may think that I have molded the thesis of the book to fit my passion for running. It was quite the opposite. In fact, I began reading the book upon recommendation from a band director (as yes, music offers an infinite number of flow opportunities), and after reading the first few chapters began to realize that this concept directly related to how I feel out on the trails.
While it can be difficult to see recognize what flow looks like, I have done my best to dig up a few YouTube clips of what I think of flow to be. Pick your poison, depending on your interest!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIANMqJX0ig (NBA star Kyrie Irving … excuse the excessive accolades from the announcers)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4JD-3-UAzM (Piano solo)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZw6A4KsTR8 (Interpretive dance … mute the speakers for the first 5 seconds. Your ears will thank you.)
That’s all for now.