How Runners Can Achieve a Natural High

Pip Coates, Deputy Editor of The Australian Financial Review Magazine interviewed Sue about the state of flow for a running blog she writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Brisbane Times (Fairfax media). See Pip’s story below.

There are many ways to relax. Take drugs, for example; and it seems many Australians do. Figures released this month reveal more than 10 per cent of the working-age population regularly uses cannabis. And Australians are the biggest users of ecstasy.

I wonder how many of these people ever go running? Are recreational drug taking and recreational running mutually exclusive activities? Is it possible to do both well?

To my mind, they must be mutually exclusive. But feel free to let us know below about how you routinely get stoned then rise at 5.30am for a solid track session. Or how you take an E, dance all night then do the City2Surf in 65 minutes dressed as a fairy. (Sure, you may have been drinking water all night. And you’d have some sugar in the system from sucking on Chupa Chups. But still …)

Regular, committed runners should have no need for so-called recreational drugs. There are a few reasons for this – obvious ones, such as the way drugs knock you around, disrupt your routine and generally sabotage your fitness. But the thing is, running is a drug too, in the sense that it is recreational, and can be addictive and distract you from your stresses. Indeed, running can take you to a “higher” place. And no amount of mad snacking on dry cereal will replace the endorphin rush that a good workout brings. Most runners, elite or average, fast or slow, have experienced a post-exercise “high”.

So how do you replicate that high during a race or a training session?

Go for the flow

It’s sometimes referred to as ‘flow’. People who have experienced it have described flow this way: “felt easy”, “complete task focus”, ”totally relaxed”, “enjoying experience as it occurs”, “totally absorbed in what I am doing”, “endless supply of energy”, “things happening automatically”, “nothing else enters awareness”, and “leaves you feeling great”.

Sue Jackson is a registered psychologist and member of the College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists of the Australian Psychological Society. She has worked with elite athletes and been involved in the psychology of performance enhancement since completing a PhD on flow state in the early 1990s. She now operates the Body and Mind Flow training clinic in Brisbane.

Jackson describes flow as being totally focused in the present moment on the task at hand. “When in flow, nothing disturbs or detracts from this concentrated state. Neither external nor internal distractions take up mental space. It’s an optimal mindful state.”

A sense of effortlessness

She says that usually when you are in flow there is a sense of effortlessness, and that often means you don’t feel the pain or exertion that the circumstances might normally induce. “Even if you are aware of your effort, because of your level of confidence and your sense of control of what you’re doing, you don’t perceive it the same way.”

Jackson says flow can occur when you are being extended – for example, performing in a challenging situation – and have a skill level that matches the challenge. “Flow occurs when you move beyond your average experience of challenge and skill in a situation,” she says. “Often it’s when you’re not trying too hard or worried, but just being with the experience that you’re having.”

Whether it happens in a race or training depends on the challenge/skill equation. Jackson says that for some people, a race situation creates high-energy anxiety that can be a positive and help them focus, but conversely can lead them to be too worried about things extraneous to the task. “It comes down to the individual’s ability to regulate their attention.”

The beauty of flow is that because it’s such a positive experience, the moment remains etched in the memory, creating a blueprint of optimal experience.

The sports high

When Jackson wrote Flow in Sports with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1999, the publisher wanted to call it The Sports High. The book’s blurb says: “The experience of flow is still one of the least understood phenomena in sport. And yet it is one of the richest, most memorable experiences an athlete will ever know.”

So what can you do to help bring flow on?

Jackson says getting skilled at mindfulness – or being in the present moment – will facilitate it, as well as being able to create the right sort of environment where you have an openness to challenge and developing your confidence.

“This can mean having clear goals and being open to feedback: whether you’re on task or need to make adjustments. It can be listening to your body and the different cues from your body. You’re not doing it to evaluate yourself and say, ‘oh, I wanted to get this split, and because I didn’t I might as well give up’. You say, ‘OK this is my split’ and you take the information in and then make adjustments. You are staying involved with what you are doing. All of that is about being connected to the task.”

Jackson says flow is not just about being able to get your best performance, which is often tied to this state, but it’s about having a really enjoyable experience.

“Flow makes things enjoyable, which then is motivating.” Better than those other drugs surely?

Read more: