Runner’s Flow - constantly in sync

22. August 2019

Runner’s flow? In his new book “Medical Running”, Spiral Dynamics founder Christian Larsen describes runner’s flow as the desirable and gentler alternative to runner’s high. 

Runner’s high is a term well known to most runners - either from their own experience or at least from stories. Evolution has ensured that when it comes to long and exhausting runs, the body's chemical factory in the brain provides powerful painkillers that make you forget pain when running. The body's morphine-like painkillers are uniformly released into the blood as needed, just like a pump. This production of endorphins can create a rush of supernatural euphoria - the runner’s high. Ecstatic - no question about it, but usually only achieved with great effort and not necessarily healthy.

Everything in flow

The alternative is runner’s flow - «to be in flow». Flow is a state of complete mental absorption. Flow can be achieved through sporting activities, purely intellectual activities, or a combination of both. In the flow state, the brain works differently than normal: the brain waves slow down - from the normal beta activity to the slower alpha waves. Alpha waves are accompanied by meditation and creative daydreaming. Sometimes the brain waves slow down even further, right down to the theta waves that occur just before falling asleep and in the dream phase. Theta waves allow access to expanded states of consciousness beyond the ordinary, everyday consciousness. 

What’s more, certain areas of the brain are sedated, and others activated. Those areas that specialise in self-observation, self-assessment and self-criticism are switched off. At last, peace of mind! In return, other areas relating to creativity are switched on.




Flow training is not performance training

The neurochemistry of the flow differs from the runner’s high, whereby the elation is triggered mainly by endorphins. Runner’s flow states, on the other hand, are induced by a finely balanced mix of various neurotransmitters in the brain. 

Flow training is not performance training. The objective and methodology differ. In the case of performance training, you have supercompensation and an increase in performance in mind - so the training stimuli and subsequent regeneration breaks need to be accordingly intensive, variable and well structured. In contrast, flow training focuses on the super mind. The focus is not on improving performance, but on expanding consciousness! 

Flow is a great thing. This raises the question as to how we can achieve a state of flow when running. Runner’s flow is characterised by 5 main features:

1. Spiral movement and wave rhythm
The human body is a stroke of genius - a biological high-tech instrument. What at first glance appears to be a hinge-like bending, stretching, running machine on two legs is in reality a masterpiece of evolutionary biology: the interplay of breath and movement converges with the contra-lateral coordination of movement and rhythmic waves of breathing. Flow training takes you on an exciting journey of discovery in your own body, whose primary movement is light-footed running.

2. Upbeat and fascia training
In music, a distinction is made between the upbeat and main beat: «and… one» - the «and» is the upbeat, the «one» the main beat. In English, the importance of the time in the «beat» is even more distinct: «upbeat» and «downbeat». The crucial question concerning your running style is: do you run «upbeat» or «downbeat»? The downbeat running style emphasizes the landing, the weight going down with the force of gravity. The upbeat running style emphasizes the push-off, the lightness initiating the flight phase.

3. Breathing
In ancient India, the Himalayan yogis already knew the benefits of economical breathing. Immersed in deep meditation, they slowed down their breathing to 1-2 breaths per minute - which decreases the oxygen content in the blood and increases the carbon dioxide level. The increase of CO2 in the blood was deliberately and systematically used to induce expanded states of consciousness. This is similar when jogging. The trick is to get by with as little air as possible. 

4. Synchronising breath and movement
Runner’s flow is achieved through synchronisation. Your movement, breathing, and heart rate need to have the same rhythm. They need to blend harmoniously and not beat and swing discordantly against each other. By way of illustration: you jog at a brisk cadence of 160 steps per minute, your heart beats at the same rhythm, your breath is four times slower and your brain waves four times faster - and everything is perfectly synchronised.

5. Align your thoughts and feelingsFeelings are – alongside the synchronisation of the body rhythms – perhaps the most important ingredients in the flow experience. Flow requires positive emotions. Conversely: negative feelings will negate your flow efforts without further ado. It is therefore best if you ensure that your prevailing mood is positive when you do your running training. When doing a regeneration run in runner’s flow, you relax your consciousness, allow yourself to be inwardly calm and quietly enter the silence. Your brain waves will thank you.

*This article by Christian Larsen is a heavily abridged version of the chapter Flow from his new book «Medical Running».




A detailed article on the runner’s flow with specific exercises and meditation examples of the five key runner’s flow points can be found in the current FIT for LIFE, now available at newsstands. The pdf of the FIT FOR LIFE article can be found here. (Exclusively in German)