Flow - Feel your best and Perform your best with Steven Kotler | EP#82
Steven Kotler is a world-leading expert on flow, a speaker, and a best-selling author.
He explains how flow, a state of optimal consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, is at the core of great athletic accomplishments (as well as creative or scientific ones) and is something very much trainable and attainable for any triathlete.
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy!
- When do you get into a state of flow? Have you experienced it in races, and did it help your performance?
- Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- What is flow and how does it work?
- How flow helps athletes perform better in races and get more out of training by (among other things) accelerating learning, reducing pain, and increasing muscle strength.
- The Flow Triggers that can give rise to flow and some special tricks you can use to push you over the edge
- How long you can expect a flow state to last, and how frequently you can achieve it
One size doesn't fit all when it comes to hydration. Take PH's free Triathlon Sweat Test to get personalised hydration advice tailored to what you're training for. Use the discount code THATTRIATHLONSHOW to get 15% off electrolyte supplements.
About Steven Kotler
What is Flow?
- Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness. A state where we feel our best and perform our best.
- It describes those moments of complete attention and total of absorption. You get so focused on the task at hand that everything else just simply disappears.
- Action awareness will start to merge. Your sense of self will vanish. Time passes strangely. It slows down occasionally, more often it speeds up.
- All aspects of performance, both mental and physical, go through the roof.
Neuroscience background of flow
- When you’re talking about the brain you’re talking about three things. You’re talking about neuroanatomy – where in the brain something is taking place. And neurochemistry and neuroelectricity, which are the two ways the brain sends signals back and forth. It’s how the brain talks to itself and to the body.
- What we see in flow is a marked shift from normal waking consciousness – where we are right now.
- In normal waking consciousness, you’ve got a lot of activity in your prefrontal cortex. It is the part of your brain that’s right behind the forehead where we govern higher cognitive functions like the sense of morality or will, complex decision making, and long-term planning.
- Your brain waves are in beta which is a fast-moving wave where you are awake, alert, and paying attention.
- From a neurochemical standpoint, we see a lot of stress chemicals. It’s like a steady drip of norepinephrine, which is the chemical under anxiety and fear, and cortisol which is another stress hormone.
- In flow, all three things shift. What happens is we get a marked decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex. This shutdown explains a lot of strange things in flow. For example, why does time pass strangely in flow? It turns out that time is calculated in the prefrontal cortex.
- The fast-moving beta brainwaves drift down to the borderline of alpha waves and beta waves. Alpha waves are daydreaming mode.
- Neurochemically, the stress hormones flush out of your system and they’re replaced by five of the most potent, feel-good, performance-enhancing drugs the brain can produce. These are the neurobiological signals.
- There’s a bunch of physiological correlates for flow that we’re starting just now to get a peek at as well.
- What you’re doing in flow is you’re trading conscious processing which is really powerful, but it’s an energy hog. It’s very energy inefficient. It uses a lot of calories. And it is very slow. Conscious thought moves about 150 miles per hour.
- The adaptive unconscious or the subconscious is very energy efficient. It is very quick. Thought has been measured up to 100,000 miles per hour in the adaptive unconscious.
- When we’re in flow, one of the crazy things that happen is that this is the only time you get to actually watch the adaptive unconscious work. This is often why it’s a weird state because the adaptive unconscious moves so differently from normal waking state consciousness.
- When we go from a normal waking consciousness to a state of flow, it's because of marked shifts in three aspects of brain functioning.
- Neurochemicals: stress hormones replaced with poweful performance-enhancing chemicals.
- Neuroelectricity: shift from beta wave signals to slower, "daydreaming" alpha/beta waves.
- Neuroanatomy: the modern part of the brain that does complex and advanced processing (that requires a lot of energy), the prefrontal cortex, shuts down.
How can athletes tap into flow and use it to perform their best?
- There are cases of world championships and gold medals that are won without flow. You can do it. But it is incredibly unpleasant, painful, difficult, and it’s not sustainable over the long haul.
- The reason from a physiological standpoint is that the neurochemicals that show up in flow, like dopamine and norepinephrine, do everything from speeding up muscle reaction times to add more strength in flow states.
- There’s a 15% boost in strength that was recorded in the University of Pennsylvania when they looked at this.
- Both endorphins and anandamide, which are two of the other chemicals that show up in flow, are huge painkillers. Endorphins are the body’s own internal opiate. There are about 20 different endorphins in the brain.
- The most common one that is strongly linked to “runner’s high” has been shown to be a hundred times more powerful than medical morphine. There’s a huge amount of pain relief in this state.
- Decision making and cognitive functions go through the roof, motivation goes through the roof, creativity goes through the roof, learning and all of these things are peaked.
- Flow is the biological state of high performance. We’re all built for this. This state is ubiquitous. It shows up in anyone and anywhere provided that certain initial conditions are met.
- We now know that flow states have triggers – pre-conditions that lead to more flow. There are about 20 in total.
- Ten of them produce individual flow – the state you would get into by yourself out running or cycling.
- The other half is the group flow which is what happens when a whole team comes together performing at their peak. You can see this in a great brainstorming session, in a church choir, in a band, or a great fourth-quarter comeback in football.
- Flow causes a rush of painkillers in your brain, allowing you to perform at levels not normally possible due to the pain.
- Flow can be associated with a boost in strength of 15%.
- Decision-making, cognitive functions, creativity, and motivation all go through the roof in flow.
Can you experience group flow when you’re in a race with competitors even though you are not a team?
- There’s solitary flow with you running alone or there’s singular flow that an athlete might get as an individual when running with the pack.
- Flow follows focus. It only shows up when all of our attention is in the "right here and right now".
- That is what all the triggers do. They drive attention to the present moment. For example, risk is a flow trigger. What you might feel at the start of a triathlon, which is something that’s scary and heavy, is going to focus you. It’s going to drive attention to the now.
- Pain, which is what you’re feeling towards the end of a race, is all-consuming. It focuses all of your attention on that thing.
- Moving one step up away from pain, you’re in the fight or flight response where there are three options instead of one. You can fight, freeze, or flee.
- When you’re looking at endurance athletes, some of it is risk, some novelty, some complexity, and some unpredictability. These are all flow triggers.
- When I work with runners who are really trying to spend more time in flow, the first thing I do is I get them off the pavement and into the woods and get them trail running and making new trails as they run. This increases the complexity and unpredictability so you’re going to get more flow.
- If you want to turn it up a notch, run downhill. Run some long uphill and then run downhill through the woods at higher speeds where your feet are moving faster than your body. This is an absolutely phenomenal flow trigger. I use this method almost every day to put myself and my dogs into flow.
How long can a flow state last?
- The answer is a mystery in all honesty because what we know about flow is that on average it lasts an hour and a half. We know this because some of the neurochemicals that underpin the state are short-lived in the brain for only 20-30 minutes.
- It doesn’t happen very often that you’re in a flow state for the entire race. Usually, what I find in endurance athletes is that it takes a while. You have to get to some level of exhaustion before you can start reaching flow because it shows up when we’re pushing ourselves.
- Another one of the triggers is known as the challenge-skills balance. When the challenge of the task at hand slightly exceeds your skill set, you would stretch but not snap which would really drive attention.
Other ways to trigger flow?
- Getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and things related to these are really important because it’s a high energy state.
- This is not to say that you can’t get into flow when tired. However, here’s what is interesting. When you have too much norepinephrine in your system – norepinephrine is anxiety – you get out of that sweet spot between the challenge and skills balance and it tends to block you from getting into flow.
- Whenever you’re tired, your brain is always performing a calculation that’s saying you’re tired, you don’t have enough energy for this current situation, you can’t meet potential threats, and you feel more fear in every situation.
- Creativity is pattern recognition. When two ideas come together, we get a little squirt of dopamine which is a feel-good chemical. This is one of the chemicals in flow that is a profound focusing chemical.
- When I’m skiing or downhill mountain biking, I start to creatively interpret the terrain. If I want to ski something really challenging, I don’t immediately go to it and try to use risk as a flow trigger to drive me in, because it’s too dangerous.
- If I’m going to do something dangerous and risky, I want to be in flow before I attempt it. So what I do instead is I do a warm-up lap where I creatively interpret every inch of terrain. If I normally jump left, I jump right.
- If you start stacking creative act upon creative act, you’re going to drive dopamine in the system. When you do enough of it, you’re going to start matching the dopamine count you’ll get from taking a big risk.
Flow triggers and getting into flow
- Risk, pain, novelty, complexity, unpredictability, challenge-skills balance, and creativity all act as flow triggers.
- Get enough sleep and drink enough water to not shortchange yourself of flow.
- Creatively interpreting the terrain, and stacking creativity is one trick you can use to get into flow.
Can flow be used in a training situation to enhance the adaptation?
- The more neurochemicals that show up during the experience, the better chance it’s going to move from short-term into long-term memory.
- Flow is this huge dump of five potent neurochemicals. In studies run by the Department of Defense with both snipers and radar operators, they saw a learning spike of 470% while in flow.
- This is why people right now are working hard on flow and education everywhere from the classroom to virtual reality education efforts, because learning is amplified in flow.
Do elite athletes get into flow more easily compared to normal age-groupers?
- Elite athletes do get more flow.
- However, flow is a spectrum. Flow has seven core characteristics. Micro flow is when a couple of characteristics go together. This happens when you go out for a leisurely run and you forget the time or you forget that your body is in pain.
- Macro flow is when all the characteristics go together. It feels like a full-blown mystical experience.
How often can we get into flow? Is this something that you can expect to happen every training session?
- No, you can't expect that to happen.
- We worked with 80 Google-employees from different departments. We worked with them for 6 weeks. They did about an hour of homework a day spread out throughout the day. We trained them in 4 trip flow triggers and 4 high-performance basics. We saw a 35-80% increase in flow.
- We have a digitally delivered course called Flow Fundamentals where we do pre- and post-measurements. We measure the 7 characteristics of flow. On average, we’re seeing a 70% boost in flow.
- These people have a deep interest in this topic. So, their numbers are probably a little higher than what the average person can expect. With that said, what this really tells us is that flow is really, really trainable.
- You won't get into flow every single workout, but by training yourself to use flow triggers you'll be able to get into flow significantly more often than before.
- We’re a research and training organization. On the training side, we work with everybody from US Special Forces and professional athletes to corporations like Google and Ameritrade to the general public.
- On the research side, we are one of the largest open source research projects into ultimate performance in the whole world.
- We are always running a handful of studies. Right now there’s a "flow in creativity" study that we’re doing. Next week we will be launching the very first imperative study between flow and psychedelics.
- In the book, I looked at how adventure sports athletes are harnessing flow to extend the upper limits of physical performance.
What kind of science and research is out there on flow in endurance athletes?
- Endurance athletics has been deeply embedded in this research for no other reason than Aaron Dietrich, who is one of the principal researchers.
- He is the first person who figured out that the prefrontal cortex deactivates in flow. He did it when he was at Georgia Tech. He was doing doing triathlon and Ironmans while he was doing it.
- When the prefrontal cortex deactivates, it’s called transient hypofrontality. We know there’s an exercise-induced transient hypofrontality which is essentially a runner’s high.
- At the University of Arizona, they trained a human, a dog, and a ferret to run on a treadmill. Then afterward, they looked for anandamide which is one of the chemicals that underpins flow. They found it in the human and dog – two species that are evolved to run long distances – but not in the ferrets.
- Initially, the first emergence of flow was from distance running. Any creature who got a little bit more endorphins or anandamide is going to be a more successful runner.
How much can performance improve because of flow?
- The best book on this subject is Flow in Sports by Susan Jackson. There’s a lot of data in there to look at.
- We’ve got better metrics for what flow does on cognitive function right now compared to athletic performance. It boosts creativity by 400-700%. Productivity goes up by 500%.
Favorite book, blog, or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports:
When do you get into your best flow state?
- While riding or hurling myself down mountains at high speeds
What's a personal habit that helped you achieve success:
- I start every day at 3:45 AM
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Steven Kotler
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
I sincerely want you to contact me to
- Send me feedback
- Give constructive criticism
- Request topics and guests for the podcast
- Send me your triathlon-related questions
- Tell me that you've rated and reviewed That Triathlon Show so I can give you a shout-out on the show and tell you how much it means to me!
Subscribe to That Triathlon Show and never miss an episode!
MORE ON THAT TRIATHLON SHOW
Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments below. I'll be here to reply and take an active part in the conversation, so don't be shy!
I'm especially curious, when do you get into a state of flow? Have you experienced it in races, and did it help your performance?