Tapping into flow can feel addictive. Thousands of people around the world are hunting it down day-after-day without even understanding what they are searching for. This is part of the reason the Flow Centre exists: to explore the different ways people tap into flow and use this to generate the body of knowledge to allow anyone, anywhere to access its power.
This article is about extreme exercise and how this can be an entry point into flow.
Not everyone has accessed flow through exercise before. It is definitely not easy and takes both physical and mental training to achieve.
Flow in athletics is commonly referred to as the zone or peak performance. For events such as marathons, bike races, triathlons and Ironmans, flow is accessed through the extreme stresses put on the body. If you have taken the Flow Centre course you will understand that part of the break down of our mental state is when we engage in fight, flight or freeze responses during pressured scenarios; as opposed to adopting flow. These pressured scenarios and responses we choose to adopt are as applicable in the extreme exercise realm as any.
There are a number of mental hurdles that occur as you go through progressively more intense phases of exercise. I've experienced this myself and have occasionally accessed flow states. The times that I have were absolute bliss, which is part of the reason I am passionate about bringing intensity to sport.
Let's go through the barriers that exist before you even get close to achieving flow or the zone though exercise.
A huge part of being healthy and active is your physical fitness. You hear it every day and may know it well, but flow is the next level reason for why you should get fit.
Without a baseline level of fitness it will be impossible to traverse beyond the first barrier of exercise and flow. The first barrier is the initial physical discomfort of training. As you train, your brain is getting massive amounts of input. It is continuously processing our experiences in order to make the next decision. Breathing right, moving right, fatigue, muscle soreness are all part of the package of neural training, which your brain is doing continuously.
If it's new to you, the initial physical discomfort of exercise will dominate your mind. All you will be able to think of, is when is this going to be over; how much more do I have to do! I want to stop.
This is all a normal part of getting into shape. This first barrier is unfortunately where 80% of the population stop. We are evolutionarily wired to take the path of least resistance, so it is only natural to expect that most people stop here. Hence the constant 'on and off' phases of exercise, diets, and fads that people go through.
For those who are lucky enough to persist and get past this phase, and gain a baseline level of fitness, multiple or further physical barriers will present themselves. These barriers are where athletes might believe that they are not capable of anything beyond this point. However. these hurdles are actually more mental than physical. The human body is capable of amazing things but mental barriers must be pushed through to achieve them. Each time a new mental barrier presents itself you are faced with a few different options. Fight, flight, freeze or flow. Only through practice and persistence will you be able to choose flow more often; assuming we already have the necessary fitness required to complete the task.
After pushing through a number of these fatigue barriers and experiencing a number of second winds, your mind becomes more engaged in the moment. Higher cognitive activity for conceptualising and planning are no longer important, or needed, and shut off (become down-regulated). The priority, instead, becomes getting through the current circumstance or event, so extreme presence and flow can be accessed.
Tips to finding your flow in exercise:
When doing your exercise, practice the below tips to get you started.
Look for extreme pressure/intensity in your exercise as a way to plug you into flow
Actively choose flow over fight, flight and freeze responses. Do so by relaxing into the struggle and arousal as it spikes
Make sure your fitness is above adequate for the task
Look for flow through all your exercises; practice in one area helps another
Know your body first, then push your limits. When the body says stop, you normally have further capacity, keep going. Though do this gradually, in communication and awareness of your body-to avoid injury.