Running and the Zone – Is the Zone or Flow the True Runner’s High?

By Rick Morris

Have your ever experienced the zone? Some call it flow. Basketball players describe the basket as appearing as big as 50 gallon barrel. Baseball players describe the ball as moving in slow motion. A runner may feel as if they are floating on air with their feet barely touching the ground. Runner’s sometimes call this a runner’s high. Athletes in each sport feel and experience “flow” or “the zone” in different ways, but they are all part of the same group of physical and psychological feelings – the experience of flow or being in the zone.

The zone is nothing new. It’s been around since the dawn of man and it describes a very pleasurable, efficient and nearly mystical state in which running or any athletic event becomes nearly effortless. The state of being in the zone has been around forever, but the terms “in the zone” or “flow” are more recent inventions. The origin of the phrase “in the zone” is up for some debate. There is not much agreement on who the first person was to coin that term. Some think it was baseball player Ted Williams while others credit tennis legend Arthur Ashe. No matter who first used the term, “the zone” has become the most common way to describe the effortless, euphoric feeling of that altered state of conscious that many athletes strive to attain.

The origin of the term “flow” is more clear cut. Flow was first used by in the early 1970’s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago. Csikszentmihalyi broke flow down into a number of components, many of which, but not necessarily all, are present when an athlete attains “flow” or reaches the zone. The components as described by Csikszentmihalyi are: clear goals and feedback, balance between challenge and skills, action and awareness merged, sense of personal control, altered sense of time and self-rewarding experience.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it the zone or flow; it’s all the same thing. The flow theory simply breaks the zone down into its individual components. So how does this relate to running and runners high? Is flow or the zone the true runners high? Some think that runners high is more related to breaking through the marathon wall and reaching a Zen like state. As an experienced marathon runner and coach, I have never been able to agree with that. I have had many encounters with the marathon wall and I have never broken through to a feeling of euphoria. I have definitely felt broken, but have never broken through.

On the other hand, I have experienced that feeling of effortless running and euphoria on many occasions, not related to the marathon wall. I have reached levels where I literally don’t feel my feet touching the ground, where I feel like my body is running on auto pilot and I’m just going along for the ride. I’m not alone in those feelings. Many of my running friends and clients have also managed to achieve flow, usually without really trying.

Is the zone and flow the same thing as runners high? I think so and many other agree with me. But how do you achieve that magical feeling? Let’s take a look at the components of flow one by one.

Clear Goals and Feedback

You should have set clear goals for yourself and must have a way to immediately monitor your feedback. This one is running 101. You already know that you must have a well thought out and specific goal to meet. You also need a way to determine if you’re successfully advancing towards your goal. There is no better feedback than how you feel when you’re running and improving your running fitness.

Balance Between Challenge and Skill

Here is another no brainer. If you have properly set your running goals you’ve already met this component of flow. This one means what your goal must be within your skill set. If you just started running you can’t expect to go right out and run a 15 minute 5K. Your challenge must be attainable or you will become stressed and frustrated. Reaching the zone would be impossible under those circumstances. On the other hand, your goal must be difficult enough to provide a challenge. If you are a 3 hour marathon runner, a goal of running a marathon in 5 hours would be easy and boring. The lack of interest and challenge would also make attaining flow unlikely.

Action and Awareness Merged

I hate psycho babble. Why not keep things simple. What this one really means is that you become so absorbed in your running that your sole focus is on your running, your pace, your stride and the signals your body is sending you. You go so deep within yourself that you lose self-consciousness. The Zen Masters out there may call this becoming one with your running. That description is quite true. You go so deep within yourself that your stride, your pace and even the external environment seem to blend into one.

A Sense of Personal Control

Think about your daily activities. If you don’t have control over what you are doing or want to do you feel helpless and frustrated. On the other hand if you have full control over your own body and what your body is doing you feel much more powerful and fulfilled. Your running is exactly the same. If you have developed a sense of control over your body and how it reacts to the both outside (extrinsic) events and internal (intrinsic) events you are going to be more confident and relaxed. You are going to me much more likely to attain flow.

Altered Sense of Time

When you become highly involved and focused on an activity you can lose track of time. This may happen when you’re in deep conversation with a friend or watching an enjoyable movie. I’m sure this has happened to you. You look up at the clock and wonder where the time went. When you reach the zone during running you have that same sensation. Time flies by faster that it seems like it should. A mile no longer feels like a mile. Both time and distances seem shorter than they usually do.

Self Rewarding Experience

This last one is the biggest no brainer of all. A self rewarding experience means that you enjoy the activity or are rewarded by the activity for highly internal (intrinsic) reasons. What does this mean for a runner? Very simple – It means that you love to run. You aren’t running to please someone else, be it your coach, your friends or your boss. You aren’t running because you must to lose weight. You aren’t running to support your team mates. You’re running for the simple joy of running. If you’re running for any other reasons, it will be difficult for you to attain flow or a true runners high.

Those are the components of the zone, flow and in my opinion, runners high. Now, how do you meet those components? First and foremost, you must run for the pure joy of running. That is the most important component of all. Running for any other reason will probably keep your mind and body closed to the euphoria of flow.

Second, you will need to train your body to run as efficiently as possible. You will need to improve your running mechanics so that you are wasting little or no energy and increase your muscle elasticity to the point at which much of the power of running is generated effortlessly through the use of the energy return or “springiness” of highly elastic muscles.

Third, be sure that you’re balancing the challenge of your running with your existing skill and fitness set. Choose a running goal that is challenging but within your current abilities.

Fourth, learn to use the skills of association and disassociation so that you can go deep within yourself and become “one with your running”. Last, but not least, don’t struggle to attain flow. The zone or flow is very difficult to bring about on demand. In many ways the harder you try to attain it, the more elusive flow becomes. Just relax and let the zone come to you.