Howdy! I’m Diane Chesla and am Co-Race Director of the Niagara Falls International Marathon (NFIM) exploring the mind-body connection of running & how lessons learned can be applied to life.
In my last article I talked about the concept of “flow” by researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. To recap, it’s a state we can get ourselves into, especially in sport where time seems to stand still and our activities feel effortless. What’s really important to understand is that a key tenet of flow is when our our skill level meets a challenge we engage in. If the challenge seems too great we experience anxiety. If it seems too easy, we experience boredom.
In running, we absolutely can experience a state of flow whether it’s a simple feeling of an effortless run or far off on the opposite spectrum, where we have a complete out of body experience as I shared in my last article. To experience this state, we have to have miles on our feet that comes from years of running, speed work, hill work and all of that. We then have to engage in a run we deem challenging that meets our level of training. These are the basic inputs according to Csikszentmihalyi’s theories of flow.
Sure, there are those freak incidents where someone finds themselves in a precarious situation and can draw upon previously unknown strengths (e.g. running in a life threatening chase), but this situation is rare. What I actually want to explore in this article is exactly how we apply lessons learned from states of flow in running to real life.
When I started exploring the concept of “applying lessons learned from sport to life,” I noticed that most who spoke on this topic had the same advice. For example, we can analyze our training that helped us finish a marathon and conclude that focus, determination and overcoming challenges were keys to achieving our goal and can in turn be applied to succeeding in a career. What I noticed is that this isn’t so easy to do. For one, humans are emotional beings with distinct personalities and layers upon layers of conditioned responses built around our psyche. I never found that running taught me to deal with tough personalities, group dynamics, power plays or how to deal with my own emotional layers that I accumulated throughout my life experiences.
There are a myriad of techniques we can try to “un-peel” these layers and better ourselves, but my interest is in how we can apply lessons learned from sport to “real” life. What I’m going to share with you here is one approach. I learned this approach while studying method acting at the Strasberg Institute. In method acting, we bring the most authentic version of ourselves on stage. How is it done? Through sense memory training that triggers an emotional response. Imagine—and this is the key—imagine that we are biting into a lemon wedge. We will most likely tense up our face and recall this as an unpleasant experience. We can go through all of our sense responses in this imaginary act—the smell, the taste, the feel and the visual recall of the lemon. Imagine now that we have to play a character on stage where we are disgusted by someone or something we see. Right before we go on stage we go through the sensory exercise pretending we are eating the lemon so we get all bitter and feel repulsed. We stay in that state during our act and voila, we now are repelled by this person or act in the scene.
Let’s do this exercise with running. Imagine we are having this amazing run. What does it feel like? Can you feel the gentle breeze caress your skin? Can you hear the melodic sounds of birds chirping? Are you in the country and witness the vast beauty of open spaces? Can you feel your legs move in perfect rhythmic strides? Can you taste the dewy freshness of the air around you? You are in flow, no matter how intense or long this experience is. Do you feel like you are incredibly happy during this experience? Feel in charge of your world, your being?
Fast forward to a work day. You have to make a presentation in front of an important client. You’re not a good public speaker. What you can do is prep by relaxing and then recalling this amazing run and sensory experience. Go through each sense and recall the feeling of the run. Be very specific and take your time. Minutes before entering the presentation space at work, recall everything about that amazing run. Enter the boardroom and knock ‘em dead! The key is staying in that heightened state.
There is a missing component to flow and sense memory recall. In my next article I explore the importance of relaxation as a precursor to states of flow.