By Brett Blanker
“Flow” is a state where you are very focused on the task at hand. With the focus, time seems to slow down, details rise, and the mind lets go of anything else that isn’t important. Ever had an experience where you forgot time and were so engaged, nothing else mattered? And then you were doing the job at hand perfectly? For steady-state performances like endurance sports, learning how to achieve this state of “Flow” can greatly improve your training and racing.
Want to learn how? Let’s get started!
The best tools for flow are paying attention to breathing rate, fueling, metabolism, and pace. If you go too fast, you burn through your energy reserves quickly and aren’t training yourself for anything over a 5K. Fuel is a double edged sword. It can give you energy or, if taking in too much, take it away. Metabolism will fuel your body with different ratios of fat (endless) or glycogen (very limited) for energy, depending on how hard you are going. Your breathing is a reflection of your pacing, which can tell you what your metabolism is doing, which in turn can tell you how much to fuel.
When you train while trying to reach an optimal mix of these five tools, a flow state is automatically achieved. You become so focused on the amazing relationship between them, everything else seems to melt away and you become one with the workout. As you train more and more frequently in this flow state, it becomes an incredible weapon on race day.
To start, take 180 and subtract your age. This is your approximate MAF, or Maximum Aerobic Function. With extremely few exceptions, an individual cannot go over this heart rate without becoming anaerobic. When you go anaerobic, your body cannot fuel itself on fat fast enough, so it switches to burning predominantly or entirely glycogen. Your breathing changes to huffing for air as your body is overloaded and borrowing energy from other systems to get to job done. Obviously, this cannot last for very long and is not good training for endurance sports.
Begin your workout committed to not go at or over this MAF heart rate. Check your numbers on occasion, but not so much to become a slave to your watch. FEEL what it is like to be above vs. below MAF. Learn this while biking and running and then you can do it in the pool when no heart rate numbers are available. Again, breathing is your best indicator. The chemical reaction of burning glycogen requires a lot more air than fat burning. You’ll start pursing your lips, puffing your cheeks, and huffing strongly to ram more air into your lungs.
To train for a specific event, first figure out how many hours per week you need to train. Grow your current volume by 10% each week and time it so that you hit your goal a few weeks out from race day. Then drop your volume by half each week as you taper. This 10% rule keeps you from getting injured or exhausted. While training, stay in the Flow state nearly the entire time and you will not get injured AND have the most epic training ever – stuff you will tell everybody about. It’s that good!
One last note. Training at this perfect metabolic rate has the side benefit of burning off excess body fat like you wouldn’t believe. And you’re not eating extra calories. AND you’re changing your metabolism so that it’s burning body fat all day when you’re not exercising.
Getting in a flow state while exercising can take a little bit of practice, but you can do it. It’s basically meditation, which has been practiced by millions of people for thousands of years. The whole point is to get into a state of equilibrium and notice what takes you out of it. As you progress, you do less of what takes you out of it and more of what keeps you in. Eventually, you can learn to be in flow whenever you need to. At work, in a race, in traffic. It’s good stuff!